Runge Debuts Kapustin’s First Cello Concerto

C5362 cover

KAPUSTIN: Cello Concerto No. 1. SCHNITTKE: Cello Concerto No. 1 / Eckart Runge, cel; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, Berlin; Frank Strobel, cond / Capriccio C5362

German cellist Eckart Runge here plays the first cello concerti of the late Nikolai Kapustin, whose music I love, and Alfred Schnittke, whose music I generally dislike, but since they are paired on the same CD I am reviewing them both.

Unlike Kapustin’s second Cello Concerto, which has been performed and recorded, this is the very first recording of the first. In 2009 Runge visited the composer and was entrusted with the score of this work. Runge gave its world premiere with Frank Strobel conducting this same orchestra in 2018, and here it is, recorded in March of that year. The Schnittke concerto was recorded in October 2019.

Although marked “Allegro,” the first movement starts off very quiet and subdued, with soft drum beats introducing the orchestra, and after a string and brass fanfare the cello enters out of tempo, ruminating around as if it were improvising its own part—but of course, nothing in Kapustin’s music was improvised, but carefully thought out ahead of time. Eventually the soloist plays a few jazz-like licks before resorting to pizzicato figures, which introduce low strings and brass, the former playing a repeated motif and the latter playing a counter-figure. It’s possible that the unusual gentleness of this music, combined with the requirement of the soloist and orchestra to swing in order to make it work, are what put off several previous attempts to get it performed. As Kapustin’s works go, it is a surprisingly relaxed and genial work, and Lord knows that it’s hard enough to find classical musicians who can swing without asking them to do so through a half-hour concerto.

I also found much of the writing here, for both soloist and orchestra, to be subtle as well. Kapustin does not call on his forces to explode with joy or rage or anything else, but rather to just create a swinging ambience in which the music can unfold in an unhurried fashion. There is, however, even within this relaxed atmosphere, several exciting moments, such as the one around the six-minute mark, before falling back to relaxed swinging. I give a lot of points to Runge for assimilating Kapustin’s aesthetic so well; certainly, it couldn’t have been that easy for him, and yet he and pianist Jacques Ammon have recorded some of Kapustin’s other works for the instrument such as the Cello Sonata No. 2, Nearly Waltz, Burlesque and Elegy. The second movement opens, surprisingly enough, as a gentle waltz before switching over to a slow 4. Once again, the music is subtle and insinuating, with the soloist slithering around in front of the sparse but effective orchestration. The music moves back to 3 for the “cool” orchestral interlude, in which certain figures are played against the beat rather than with it. At the very end, the music swings without a pause into the quirky final movement, and it is here that I fully understood why this concerto was not previously performed. Kapustin indulges in some very irregular metric patterns that the majority of classical orchestras simply cannot play, but Frank Strobel puts the RSB through their paces with just the right feeling (except, sad to say, the percussionist, who tries to cope with the swing of the beat but comes up sounding a bit stiff). Unfortunately—andf this is now getting to be a pattern with Naxos—the uploaded music file which I had to use to review this set was incomplete, giving me only two minutes out of 7:25.

As for the Schnittke Concerto, it’s a fairly drippy affair as so much of his music was. The first movement relies on sound effects, close chords played in a low range by the brass before the cello begins playing a tune that sounds plagiarized from some older Romantic composer. (Schnittke was great at stealing styles from older composers; it was kind of a trademark for him.) Then, suddenly, the orchestra explodes as if someone had tossed a hand grenade onto the stage, for no apparent reason, then quiets down again. The music basically consists of drippy cello figures set against contrasting drippy and explosive orchestral effects, and it makes little sense.

A split review, then. The Kapustin concerto, barring the glitch in downloading the last movement, is terrific, but the Schnittke concerto is absolute rubbish.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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