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Nikolai KAPUSTIN - A Performer’s Perspective

By Leslie De’Ath

The music of Nikolai Kapustin has made a minor flurry in the classical music world in recent years, largely through the Hyperion CD (CDA67159) of his piano music by Steven Osborne issued in 2000, and through the championing of his music by pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Nikolai Petrov.

The details of his life can be quickly summarized. He was born in Gorlovka, Ukraine, in 1937, and graduated from the class of Alexander Goldenweiser at the Moscow Conservatory in 1961. His musical training was traditional, with a good exposure to the Russian virtuoso piano repertoire. Jazz became a big influence during his teen years, and has remained so throughout his career. From the late 1950s he immersed himself in the Russian jazz world, forming a quintet, and playing with Juri Saulsky’s Central Artists’ Club Big Band in Moscow. Later, he toured with the Oleg Lundstrem Jazz Orchestra throughout the Soviet Union. He now lives in reclusive domesticity in Moscow with his wife, devoting his time to composition and recording.

Kapustin’s piano music is technically formidable, and as a pianist he possesses a technique to match. He remains the definitive interpreter of his own music, not just by virtue of the truism that he composed it, but also because his own recordings are astonishing feats of technical and musical accomplishment.

His style of writing is crossover, in the best sense of the term, and belongs to the ‘third stream’ trend of the later 20th century. Does his music sound more like jazz than classical? That probably hinges upon the ears doing the listening. The classically trained musician hears the wealth of jazz idioms, and is reassured by the existence of Kapustin’s printed and manuscript scores that jazz pianism can, in fact, be written down in all its subtlety and rhythmic complexity. The jazz musician probably senses the opposite: it may sound "jazzy" in many spots, but really isn’t. Both marvel at Kapustin’s accomplishment in actually getting every little detail down on paper. Committing works to writing is in itself perhaps sufficient reason to dissociate Kapustin from the mainstream of jazz culture. However, this is music that could only be composed by one steeped in the experience of jazz performing and improvising, and at the same time could only have been committed to paper by one possessing a solid classical training. How does Kapustin view himself? "I was never a jazz musician. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I’m not interested in improvisation–and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? All my improvisation is written, of course, and they become much better; it improved them." (Anderson, p.94-6) Kapustin composes at the piano, and thinks about composition from a pianist’s perspective. He believes that all piano music must be composed at the keyboard, and says that he could not compose if he didn’t play himself.

For the classical pianist, the learning of his music requires a specific approach, distinct in some ways from that of learning classical repertoire. Ultimately there is a "feel" to many passages that is unable to be notated, and it presupposes an aural acquaintance with the jazz styles of Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, and others with whom this music has an affinity. The classical pianist approaching this music can easily lapse into a learning process that "fights" the music. It is partly because the plethora of visual detail bombarding the brain causes one not to see the forest for the trees. It is also because the pianist, when performing this style of jazz, should employ an approach to arm weight, fingering, rhythmic independence of hands, and other specifically technical considerations, quite distinct from that reinforced by the experience of playing classical repertoire. For instance, this music typically demands more vitality and independence of the left hand than is usual in most classical keyboard writing. Fingering and forearm weight are closely connected allies in jazz playing, and coincide in manners peculiar to the rhythmic and harmonic idioms of jazz, as distinct from other musical styles. Part of the challenge in reading this music lies in the deciphering of this technical symbiosis hidden in the notation. No fingerings are ever supplied, and revisions of fingering during the learning process, to enhance a natural, relaxed unfolding of kinesthetic events, are common.

From a pianist’s point of view, in a sense, everything Kapustin writes feels technically like an etude – such are the demands made upon the body and the intellect. That is not to imply that he churns out calisthenic exercises with little musical substance. In fact, his music is brim-full of imaginative harmonies and turns of phrase that keep the listener on a roller-coaster ride of excitement and delight. His Eight Etudes, Op.40, partake of the 19th-century tradition of the concert-etude. That is, they are music first and foremost, and only secondarily do they exploit a specific technical challenge for the executant. On occasion, one hears in his music stylistic reminiscences of Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and others, and in the Bagatelle, Op.59/6, he manages to incorporate a veiled reference to Chopin’s "Revolutionary" Etude.

His most ambitious work for piano to date is the set of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, Op.82, written in 1997. Occupying 173 pages of dense manuscript, they nod to tradition by presenting a prelude/fugue pair in each of the 24 keys. The key scheme is quite unusual though: major alternates with minor, as in Bach, but the major keys tour the circle of 5ths in the flat direction (beginning with C major and ending with G major), while the minor keys tour in the same mode, but begin at the other side of the circle (starting with G# minor and ending with E-flat minor). This has the effect of juxtaposing very unrelated keys, and spacing relative majors and minors as far apart from one another as possible. This work remains an unknown tour-de-force of compositional synthesis and ingenuity, and a unique landmark in large-scale twentieth-century works for keyboard. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier masterfully and effortlessly synthesized the demands of linear counterpoint and 18th-century harmonic practice. Kapustin’s achievement in fusing a jazz-driven harmonic idiom with those same contrapuntal demands is perhaps comparable. Few others could even have contemplated such a project.

By all accounts, those who have met the composer are impressed by the apparent incongruity between his flamboyant musical style and his reserved, detached personal mien. His music may always remain the passion of a small cult of devotees. There are at least three reasons for this. First, regarding self-promotion, Kapustin is apparently his own worst enemy–or rather, best friend. He is interested in composing and recording, but not public performance, travel, or fame. The benchmarks of musical success often cited in Western culture have eluded him, because he has no interest in them. The modicum of international recognition now accorded him is as likely to arouse in him discomfort as much as ingratiation. There is a kind of Schubertian purity and conviction to his musical aesthetic that is too seldom encountered in the modern musical world. Yet it is neither elitist nor naïve. Second, the performance demands of the music place it in a rarefied category, capable of being broached by relatively few. Third, its musical style, taken as a whole, is conservative and "interdisciplinary". These two fundamental aspects of his style pose problems for some listeners, who are either unprepared to accept the wholesale fusion of standard jazz details into an otherwise conservative classic mould, or who would wish more "originality" or modernity to the jazz component of his style. The latter is a comment occasionally levied at Oscar Peterson, who has in his own career been content to remain largely within the boundaries of traditional jazz idioms. Significantly, Kapustin has cited Peterson as the single most influential figure upon his own music.

Kapustin’s music does not ride the crest of modern trends in any musical milieu of the twenty-first century. Because he resists easy classification, he "belongs" nowhere. He does not inhabit the world of new "serious" music, nor that of jazz, traditional or otherwise. He composes for his own enjoyment rather than to commission, or writes at the behest of friends. His musical output conforms unquestioningly to classical tradition in many ways. His compositions all bear opus numbers (a rarity with contemporary composers); he writes sonatas, concertos, preludes, fugues, variation sets, and character pieces for piano bearing titles such as Toccatina, Nocturne, Berceuse, and so on; and he writes chamber music for standard combinations.

Kapustin’s compositional output is quite substantial, and exceeds 100 opuses. There are no less than 6 piano concertos (some with big band accompaniment, some with string orchestra), plus 10 other early concertante works for piano and orchestra. The large-scale piano works include 12 sonatas, the Twenty-four Preludes, Op.53, the aforementioned Twenty-four Preludes & Fugues, Op.82, the Eight Etudes, Op.40, the Ten Bagatelles, Op.59, and numerous individual works. There is also a substantial body of orchestral and chamber music, and aside from the piano he is fond of writing for the cello (2 sonatas, a concerto, and some smaller works). The solo piano music comprises 38 separate opuses, of which 16 have been commercially recorded to date. Four of the recent chamber works are also available, but lamentably none of the concertos or other works is available on CD. Very little of his music has been published, and the small percentage that has is from Soviet and Russian publishers that have always been largely inaccessible in the West. There is now a Kapustin Society in England, devoted to the authorized dissemination of his scores, and to providing the composer with a conduit through which he may receive the equivalent of performance royalties. For further information, the link is:

KapustinSoc@cs.com

All queries regarding availability of scores should be addressed to the Society.

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The bibliography in English on Kapustin is scant, and to some extent interdependent, since much that is known of him has been derived from a small number of translator-assisted interviews. A number of CD reviews have also appeared in Gramophone, International Record Review, BBC Music Magazine, and other trade organs. The following literature will prove of interest:

Anderson, Martin. ‘Nikolai Kapustin, Russian composer of classical jazz’, in Fanfare, Sept/Oct. 2000, p.93-97

Smith, Harriet. ‘Bridging the divide’ [Interview with Kapustin], in Piano: International Piano Quarterly, Autumn 2000, p.54-55

Barnett, Rob. Liner notes to Bohème CD (CDBMR 007148), Jazz pieces for piano

Barnett, Rob. Liner notes to Bohème CD (CDBMR 007149), Twenty four preludes in jazz style, Op.53 (1988)

Osborne, Steven. Liner notes to Hyperion CD (CDA67159), Nikolai Kapustin piano music

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Kapustin himself has recorded many of his own works, but the CDs are not always easy to acquire. The following albums have been issued commercially. The Triton label is Japanese, and the CDs are unavailable outside of Japan:

Kapustin plays Kapustin - VIST (Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga 417051)- Triton (DICC-26072)- contents: Andante, Op.58, Sonata No.4, Op.60 Ten bagatelles, Op.59 Sonata No.5, Op.61 onata No.6, Op.62

Jazz pieces for piano - Bohème (CDBMR 007148)- Triton (DICC-24058) - contents: Eight concert etudes, Op.40 Sonata-fantasia (Sonata No.1), Op.39 Suite in the old style, Op.28 Variations, Op.41

Twenty-four preludes in jazz style, Op.53 (1988) - Bohème (CDBMR 007149) - Triton (DICC-24059) - contents: Twenty-four preludes in jazz style, Op.53 Daybreak (Sunrise), Op.26 Toccatina, Op.36 Meditation (Contemplation), Op.47 Big band sounds, Op.46 Motive force, Op.45

Twenty-four preludes and fugues for piano, Op.82 - DML Classics (DICC-40001-2)- 2-CD set contents: Twenty-four preludes and fugues for piano, Op.82 Elegy, for cello and piano, Op.96 Burlesque, for cello and piano, Op.97 Nearly waltz, for cello and piano, Op.98 Sonata for violin and piano, Op.70

Kapustin plays Kapustin, Chamber music - Triton (DICC-26067)- contents: Trio for flute, cello and piano, Op.86 String quartet, Op.88 Divertissement for 2 flutes, cello and piano, Op.91 Piano quintet, Op.89

Kapustin plays Kapustin, Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3 - Triton (DICC-26073) - contents: Sonata No.2, Op.54 Sonata No.3, Op.55 Andante, Op.58 Introduction and Scherzino for cello, Op.93 Duo for alto sax and cello, Op.99

Nikolai Kapustin with orchestra (not yet released)- contents: Etude for piano and orchestra, Op.19 Aquarium-blues for big band, Op.12 Variation for piano and big band, Op.3 Daybreak (Sunrise) for piano and big band, Op.26

Recordings of his piano works by other performers include:

Nikolai Kapustin piano music - Hyperion (CDA67159), 2000- Steven Osborne, piano- contains Opp.39, 53 (excerpts), and 54

20th century piano sonatas - Olympia/VIST (OCD 280), 1992- Nikolai Petrov, piano- contains Op.54

Kaleidoscope - Hyperion (CDA67275), 2001- Marc-André Hamelin, piano- contains Toccatina, Op.36

Nikolai Petrov plays encores - Olympia (OCD 273), 1995- Nikolai Petrov, piano- contains Intermezzo, from Eight Concert Etudes, Op.40

Sachiko Kato plays Beethoven, Barber and Kapustin - Orchard (7741), 2000- Sachiko Kato, piano - contains Eight concert etudes, Op.40 - #1, 2, 3, 7 & 8

© Leslie De’Ath, 2002


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