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Hyperion Records

CDA67656 - Marc-André Hamelin in a state of jazz
Front illustration by Julie Doucet (b?)
Recording details: July 2007
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2008
Total duration: 68 minutes 0 seconds


'Played with such astounding agility and aplomb that you end up mesmerised by virtually every bar. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that no other pianist could approach Hamelin in such music. Notes pour and cascade like diamonds from his fingers and he has an inborn flair for the music's wild, free-wheeling melodies and rhythms, for its glittering whimsy and caprice … superbly presented and recorded, this is a special addition to Hamelin's towering and unique discography' (Gramophone)

'Although this fine recording is entitled 'In a state of jazz' it includes no true jazz—every note is written down—but for all that it bursts with the daring vitality that is the hallmark of the best improvised music' (The Observer)

'The Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin possesses one of those musical brains that spark with maddening brilliance in whatever direction takes his fancy … it's hard to believe Hamelin didn't grow up within earshot of some dubious jazz haunt in New Orleans or Harlem … as Hamelin explains in his enjoyably lucid booklet notes, Gulda's astonishing pianistic pedigree deserves to be seen in a far wider context … Hamelin's evocations of these are wonderfully whimsical yet as crisp as celery. The syncopations 'sit' so comfortably under his fingers—exactly the right balance between ambition and restraint, warmth and edge—a pretty rare commodity in the performance of classical repertoire, let alone jazz-inspired music … this is a lovely, lovely disc; I highly recommend it' (International Record Review)

'Hamelin plays with such dexterous panache that he puts back much of the heat that the formalisation of jazz as 'composition' removes … dazzling and enchanting' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Nikolai Kapustin's remarkable Sonata No 2 is a convincing integration of classical form with jazz. Alexis Weissenberg's Sonate en état de Jazz, which evokes tango, Charleston, blues and samba in its four movements, is more idiosyncratic but no less dazzling' (The Scotsman)

'What an imaginative program Marc-André Hamelin has assembled: jazz-inspired works that are virtuosic like nobody's business and totally fun to listen to … technically, of course, Hamelin is beyond reproach … he's a serious contender for the first word in piano playing' (

Marc-André Hamelin in a state of jazz
Allegro molto  [9'03]
Allegro vivace  [3'30]

Marc-André Hamelin’s technical and interpretative brilliance over an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire has placed him firmly in the top rank of living pianists. His recent recordings of Alkan and Haydn were universally acclaimed in the highest terms. In this latest recording, Hyperion presents Marc-André Hamelin ‘in a state of jazz’, as he turns his attention to the music of Kapustin, Antheil, Gulda and Weissenberg—all composers who felt keenly that there was a fundamental desire on the part of the concert-going public to hear something different. This wonderful disc is full of surprises—as Hamelin writes in his entertaining yet scholarly liner notes, ‘There is no jazz in this recording. At least not in the traditional sense … there is much to be enjoyed here, and much to be amazed by’.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
There is no jazz in this recording. At least not in the traditional sense. Jazz is a very different animal to classical music in that by nature it involves improvisation. All of the music presented here, with one very small exception, is fully notated down to the last note—even if at times it does sound improvised—so there is no place here to exercise the heady kind of freedom associated with jazz performance.

So why call this a jazz album? I wanted to pay homage to four twentieth-century composers who were particularly successful, each in their own sometimes peculiar fashion, in fusing the spirit or the letter of jazz with music intended for the concert hall. All of the composers featured here felt keenly that there was a fundamental desire on the part of the concert-going public to hear something different; they obviously regarded the jazz world as something which is just as vital, fascinating and necessary as classical music, and definitely not to be looked down upon. I also felt that, imperfect as it is, the jazz ‘excuse’ is the best one—the only one, really—to help bring the work of these composers together, even though each of the creators featured here explores it in a completely different way. It is my hope that grouping them within the confines of this CD will cause them to influence each other synergistically; to my mind, this is clearly a case when listening to a whole disc in one sitting can be a positive experience. If this should result in overload, I hope it’s an overload of the best kind! There is much to be enjoyed here, and much to be amazed by.

It would be difficult to think of a pianist as successful as Friedrich Gulda pursuing two completely different—and simultaneous—musical careers. Initially recognized and respected as an interpreter of the so-called core repertoire ranging from Bach to Debussy, he was bitten by the jazz bug in 1950 and was never the same again, producing a very large amount of music in that idiom, and performing with some of the greatest names, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea among them.

The ten pieces in the collection entitled Play Piano Play are designated in the score as ‘exercises’ (‘Übungsstücke’ in German). Gulda originally designed the series for didactic purposes as one of the steps within what he once called ‘the long road to freedom’, i.e. a progressive forsaking of all the stylistic strictures of conventionally notated music, along with a freer stylistic approach. One can understand them as ‘exercises’ if one considers that they are very useful in providing classically trained performers with the means to learn how to ‘swing’, and in teaching them how jazz inflections differ from classical music. However, Gulda’s designation of them as ‘exercises’ is overly modest, and should not deter pianists from attempting groups of them in recitals, despite the fact that some of them require a certain amount of improvisation. These ten pieces are wonderfully refreshing, and demand to be much better known.

The Prelude and Fugue has the interesting distinction of having been played and recorded by none other than Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, on the album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends. The swinging arpeggio patterns of the prelude pave the way for a highly syncopated fugue subject, developed at a frenetic pace and keeping the performer busy disentangling some rather gnarly four-part writing. At the point of highest excitement, just before the coda, the score breaks off, and Gulda calls on the pianist to improvise the rest of the piece. This is probably the main reason why this tremendously exciting and beguiling work, though several decades old, has not so far entered the repertoire.

It has been an immense pleasure for me to see the growing status that the work of the Russian composer and pianist Nikolai Kapustin has enjoyed over the last few years. Not so long ago it was possible to do a Google search for him and come up completely empty-handed, a situation that has now radically changed. Since then Kapustin’s music has captured the imagination of professional musicians and students alike.

It is easy to see why. The reason for its tremendous appeal lies in the way Kapustin has managed to graft genuinely idiomatic and tuneful jazz writing onto established classical forms. Indeed, most of his works bear the kind of traditional-sounding titles that give no indication of the tenor of their content, his output mainly consisting of sonatas, variations, preludes and fugues, inventions, suites, bagatelles and the like. Thus his compositions provide classically trained musicians with elements they can already relate to, even if they might not be acquainted with the jazz idiom. They also do not involve any kind of improvisation, which makes them more appealing to most musicians, and easier for them to approach. It is true that Gulda had already achieved this kind of fusion of jazz and concert music to some extent, but Kapustin—who had not been aware of Gulda as a composer—developed his own language, entirely independently, and made it into something particularly vital and exciting that truly does not sound like anything else. I well remember my initial excitement at hearing the second Sonata; the work quickly became an obsession, and I urgently wanted to explore Kapustin’s other music, something which at that time (1998) was very difficult to achieve. Now that his output is finally being published outside Russia (at, the music world can have ready access to the production of this unique and wonderful creator; performances are already proliferating.

The Sonata No 2 dates from 1989 and so far constitutes Kapustin’s most extended work in the genre. Written in the bright, sanguine key of E major, it is cast in a traditional four-movement mould. There is, however, nothing at all traditional about the piano writing itself, which teems with interesting and innovative twists and turns, both stylistically and pianistically. Indeed, one remarkable feature of Kapustin’s piano writing is that it is always made to fit the hand beautifully. He always insists on composing at the piano, in order to avoid coming up with figurations which would not fit the hand well. Prokofiev once described one of Nikolai Medtner’s short piano pieces as being so comfortable as to be ‘always right there, under the fingers’. The same can unquestionably be said of Kapustin at any point within the body of his piano works. Indeed, my personal feeling is that, on a purely pianistic level, Kapustin and Medtner tower above any other piano composer in history, as far as pure comfort at the keyboard is concerned.

It is best to leave the listener to discover the many surprises contained in this exuberant work—as well as the various apparent influences—though a couple of features are worth pointing out. The brilliant and overwhelmingly energetic first movement is curiously but very effectively rounded out by a reflective and rather lengthy coda, in great contrast to the ebullience of what came before. And the last movement is unique in its rhythmic framework; it is a perpetual motion set in a repeated pattern of 8+7+8+5 beats, and keeps to this stilted sequence up to the very last bar, resulting in many unexpected accents. Incidentally, this movement is usually thought to have been inspired by the pianism of Art Tatum, but this is because it is often performed too quickly. Kapustin’s stated influence here is the world of country music.

The reputation of Bulgarian-born Alexis Weissenberg as one of the great pianists of the twentieth century is secure and well-documented. What is much less well known is the extent of his activities as a composer and arranger, and the power and individuality of his language. It is true that he has written relatively little (all of it in a popular style), and that what he has produced is hard to come by. I hope that this recording will help to bring attention to a small portion of his uniquely wonderful production. His harmonic language, though entirely tonal, contains a great deal of dissonance, used in what seems at first to be entirely illogical ways. This, with the uncommon density of the writing, makes it fantastically difficult to learn the music. I remember going through several false starts in learning the Sonate en état de jazz … reading a few pages, abandoning the task, getting back to it, giving up again … before ultimately giving a big push, which finally did the trick. Indeed this work belongs to the category of pieces which are so complex that they need to be at least partially learned before they can be evaluated. But I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this sonata is ‘cerebral’. In fact, it has quite the opposite effect on audiences! And I definitely do not want to discourage pianists from taking it on.

The composer’s preface to the score is worth reproducing here in its entirety (my translation):

A sonata in a state of jazz, like someone in a state of inebriation, hysteria, infatuation or inspiration, is not in a normal state. The resulting shock, the consequences, palpitations, excessive enthusiasm and drunkenness of the soul, force it to operate within a cubist logic, which only appears to be lucid when placed in the context of a certain kind of madness.
I have subjected a classically constructed composition to what I would call ‘contamination by jazz’. Four personalities, indigenous to four specific locales—Buenos Aires, New York, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro—are united by a common language which harks back to 1925 or thereabouts, but whose writing is inspired by the jazz of the 1950s; the Tango, the Charleston, the Blues and the Samba all unquestionably have their own individual personalities, but more significantly they all have specific characteristics which both differentiate and identify them organically, beyond concerns of rhythm or style.
The Tango, usually played by a small group including piano, accordion, drums and violin, is written in four beats to the bar. The intentionally mechanistic repetitiveness and implacability of its pulsating chords give the Tango a somewhat fatalistic character. As if seeking to avoid some kind of eventual imprisonment, the melody charts its own way, as if its existence hinged on the freedom of its own style. The juxtaposition of these two contradictory elements creates a poignant feeling. The steps of the Tango force two bodies entwined and absorbed in one another to bend, bow, break, twist and flip to the sound of a single particular note, word or harmony. The result is never very far from melodrama, but it still remains dramatic.
From this formula, I have retained two elements as basic material: pathos, and a certain declamatory style. The fact that this movement is intentionally written in three-quarter time erases the dominating rhythm. However, if we were to split the measures into groups of four, we would naturally recognize the inexorable pulse of a heart beating in common time; thus this slowing-down effect creates an unreal kind of distant memory, sentimental but temporally frozen.
The Charleston, on the other hand, is a dance which is essentially dependent upon the geometry of its rhythm. Here, melodies and harmonies are made to function more as background, becoming inconsequential. The Charleston is danced individually, both participants being apart from one another. Its syncopations are characteristically mechanistic and seem to evoke, both visually and aurally, the accelerated appearance and the characteristic abruptness of silent films from the same era. There is still room for elegance, but what predominates is thirst for fun and appetite for laughter.
The Blues is above all a cry of solitude, and sometimes a confession of loneliness. A voice, a saxophone, a trumpet or a solo clarinet, attempts to express this while trying to be heard beyond an enclosed space. An aura of melancholy is created by the vague quality of the rhythmic contour, and also by underlying harmonies which, though blurred and troubled, are sophisticated by their very nature. And the melody is like the snake that follows a path as it goes to die in the desert. The Blues is danced by two people, without strict rhythmic precision, but still with a sense of continuity. The dancers glide, hesitate, teeter, falter, freeze and begin again, as if they were nearing a final separation. The mood is one of infinite melancholy, and the tonal color is that of the night.
With the Samba the tropical sun bursts forth. A mixture of paroxystic rhythms and luxurious harmonies give the music a constant light-headed sensuality. The tunes, in tandem with the harmonic climate, evoke, recount, claim or condemn the memory of a recent and distant past—a lost loved one or an exotic beach, real or imagined. This feeling has a specific name in Brazil—saudade. More physical than ‘nostalgia’, and more ambiguous than Sehnsucht (the search for something once seen, in German) the word has no direct English equivalent, the saudade being a tribal state of mind, whose verbal, tangible and aural concept remains enigmatic, even when expressed through ritual. Thus it retains its mysterious and attractive qualities because it can only be felt while in a hypnotic state.
Finally, having placed so much stress on the moods of intoxication, contamination, drunkenness, paroxysm, hysteria, palpitation and madness which fuel this work, I find myself in a state of urgent obligation to swear solemnly that I have written this sonata in a state of indisputable sobriety!

Sometime in the 1950s there appeared on the Lumen label an extended play 45-rpm record called Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet. It contained unusually creative and entertaining piano settings of six songs by the French singer-songwriter Charles Trenet (1913–2001). The identity of ‘Mr. Nobody’ was kept secret until a few years ago, when it was revealed to be Alexis Weissenberg. It is easy to see why Weissenberg chose to adopt a pseudonym for this recording. At that time a serious classical pianist dabbling in such trivialities as popular song would most likely have been compromising his own career. (How times have changed. This kind of thing is welcomed, even encouraged, by record companies now.)

From the moment I was introduced to this recording by a friend, I was anxious to play the arrangements myself. But since Weissenberg never wrote them down, I had to create a score. Luckily, the whole experience of transcribing the songs was pleasant—despite my devoting an entire month to it. Anyone who is familiar with Trenet’s songs in their original form will be delightfully surprised by what Weissenberg has done with them. Unusual touches abound: in Coin de rue, an evocation of the narrator’s childhood, the listener is treated to the sounds of a barrel organ; the ‘oom-pah’ rhythm of Boum! becomes a foxtrot, while the moderately paced Ménilmontant is transformed into a headlong moto perpetuo.

Whatever the musical merits of his production might be, the American George Antheil will at least go down in history as one of the most remarkable of all mavericks. He had a refreshing disregard for conventionality. To get an idea of his vision and willingness to explore extremes, listen to his Ballet mécanique from 1924—with its multiple pianos, percussion arsenal, sirens, bells and aeroplane propeller. Following a disappointing performance of this work in Carnegie Hall in 1927, Antheil greatly toned down his style, eventually producing several film scores in Hollywood. However, the work played here dates from his early tumultuous days as a touring pianist, when he mainly performed his own aggressive and mechanistic piano pieces.

Anyone attempting to talk about the Jazz Sonata on a deeply analytical level isn’t playing with a full deck. Aside from pointing out that it shares a good deal of its material with the very entertaining Jazz Symphony written around the same time, it would be useless to dissect this little ninety-second piece. Suffice it to say that this amusing and intriguing bit of musical nonsense is at least remarkable for being one of the first examples (if not the first) of outright musical collage. There’s no logic whatsoever in the way it’s assembled. It works—somehow.

Marc-André Hamelin © 2008

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