Marc-André Hamelin in a state of jazz: Gulda, Kapustin, Weissenberg & Antheil

Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67656)

7th April 2008 5 stars

Marc-Andre Hamelin in a state of jazzOne could be forgiven for thinking that this disc might just be a case of another classical pianist deciding to indulge a 'hidden passion' for jazz, but thankfully it represents no such lapse in taste from Marc-André Hamelin or Hyperion. Hamelin sets out his stall straight away in his chatty and unstuffy liner note, stating simply 'there is no jazz in this recording'. He goes on to qualify that statement and explain that even if the music on the disc - by Friedrich Gulda, Nikolai Kapustin, Alexis Weissenberg and George Antheil – might sound like jazz with a feeling of improvisation and creative abandon, all but one of the numbers is fully notated.

Hamelin, however, manages to make the fistfuls of notes all sound improvised and effortless. One suspects that in the hands of a lesser pianist, the difficulty in having painstakingly to learn and reproduce all the notes in the score would come through in performance, robbing them any feeling of what Hamelin calls 'the heady kind of freedom associated with jazz performance.' But although it's difficult to tell what jazz aficionados might make of a CD like this, collectors of piano music are going to find the results irresistible.

The pianist cleverly separates the larger works on the disc with some briefer pieces by Friedrich Gulda, including three 'Exercises' from his Play piano play. As Hamelin's note tells us, Gulda, who received a classical training before becoming an equally brilliant jazz pianist, wrote these pieces as aids, essentially, for classically trained pianists to loosen up, cut themselves free from some of the restrictions of their art and prepare for the entirely different discipline of playing jazz. The three pieces from the set chosen here are easy-going: No.1 swings along nicely; No.4 has a mischievous, bluesy feel to it; and No.5 is like a conversation between two solo instruments against a walking bass, which introduces an ingenious fugato section just before a minute in. There's more contrapuntal writing in the other Gulda piece, the 'Prelude and Fugue' from 1965. The Prelude sounds like a super-charged version of Bach's First Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Fugue is extraordinary. Despite its rigorously argued counterpoint, it is highly entertaining and the only piece to require improvisation – in the coda – which Hamelin delivers seamlessly.

The first substantial piece on the disc is Sonata No.2 by Nikolai Kapustin (b.1937), the Russian composer already showcased by Hamelin on a disc of his music released on Hyperion in 2004. A vibrant and kaleidoscopic work, it receives a performance here to which could be applied the composer's own appraisal of Hamelin's earlier disc: 'perfect in every respect'. The first movement's energy is infectious and the boundless harmonic and rhythmic invention is captured wonderfully, with an ideal balance of lyricism, percussive exuberance and improvisation. The ostinato figures that feature both here and in the second and fourth movements are never allowed to dominate, but are used to drive the music forward and the whole is dispatched with jaw-dropping ease, stylishness, finesse and bravura.

Alexis Weissenberg's Sonate en état de jazz is a slightly more austere affair. The casual listener would be hard-pressed to detect which jazz genre forms the basis of each of the four movements whose titles seem to mock the vague language the Romantic piano school – 'Evocation d'un tango', 'Réminiscence d'un charleston', 'Reflets d'un blues', 'Provocation de samba'. Hamelin admits that 'the uncommon density of the writing… makes it fantastically difficult to learn the music' and Weissenberg's style is often angular, sounding less improvisatory and free than the Kapustin. So, if perhaps a little less toe-tappingly enjoyable, this sonata is still finely wrought and a fascinating exploration of what the composer saw as the defining characteristics of each of the forms he evokes. As well as performing the work with commitment and consummate virtuosity, Hamelin provides a translation of Weissenberg's own introduction to it, which finishes with a telling clarification from the composer: '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!'

Weissenberg is represented again in six arrangements of songs sung by Charles Trenet. Hamelin himself has transcribed these from a record Weissenberg released anonymously in the 1950s as Mr. Nobody plays Trenet. Obviously a labour of love, the performances of these often ingenious and always highly entertaining transcriptions are delightful. The disc finishes with a brief contribution from George Antheil, his minute-and-a-half Jazz Sonata from 1922/3, an 'amusing and intriguing bit of musical nonsense' despatched with élan.

Captured in unobtrusively excellent sound, this is another outstanding addition to this phenomenal pianist's discography.

By Hugo Shirley