Nikolai Kapustin’s music is so entertaining, so instantly likable, that you’d
be surprised to know it is controversial. He writes in the style
of jazz, vintage piano jazz in the highly improvisatory, dashingly
virtuosic manner of Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum.
Only it’s not jazz, and this is where Kapustin’s detractors
grow anxious. All of his music is carefully and elaborately
written out, and much of it is composed in strict classical
forms: thus his piano sonatas really do use sonata form, his
scherzos and dances deploy the meters and structures of classical
dance movements - transformed beyond recognition - and his large-scale
pieces, like the flute trio (recently reviewed here) and the
brilliant string quartet, are convincing examples of classical
architecture as well as daring essays in jazz idioms on unconventional
instruments. Critics ask: classical or jazz, what will it be?
Kapustin and his fans, of which I am very much one, answer:
does it matter?
If I had to choose, I’d likely single out the Eight Concert
Etudes as my favorite Kapustin: short, snappy works with
a lot of range, they offer tune- and virtuosity-laden examples
of his art. The subtitles, giving each etude the feel of a character
piece, aren’t really always relevant; “Reminiscence” does feel
rather wistful, but the “Pastoral” makes one wonder just what
odd country scenes Kapustin was thinking of. I could see it
as a genial county fair, perhaps. Particular joys to me are
the last two, the “Intermezzo” opening a bit like a Brubeck-style
lullaby with one of the composer’s most memorable hooks, in
delicious contrast to the hectic perpetual motion of the finale.
The Twenty-Four Preludes in Jazz Style are a bit of
a taller mountain to climb, being nearly fifty minutes long,
and I do have to admit twenty-four of Kapustin’s miniatures
in a row can be a bit much for one sitting. The language doesn’t
quite admit as much variety as you might get from Chopin or
Rachmaninov, say, since even when Kapustin slows down he adds
his quasi-improvisatory filigree and playful thematic variation.
Still, as piano jazz this would be first-rate, and as classical
music it explores the greater freedom of the prelude structure
but with the composer’s usual technical rigor. There are undoubted
highlights: No 9 is an exquisite slow movement, as unadorned
and Gershwin-ish in its melodic warmth as Kapustin has ever
gotten; No 19 is a frolicking boogie which brings home its catchy
tune in just 80 seconds; No 24 makes a satisfying conclusion,
though the composer’s voice is so bright that it does not feel
like D minor.
The attention of some major pianists has been turned to this
repertoire, and Catherine Gordeladze is a worthy contender.
I know two other recordings of the Eight Concert Etudes,
Marc-André Hamelin’s on Hyperion and Kapustin’s own (hard to
find). Hamelin, as you’d expect, is faster than everyone else,
attacking the pieces like a hungry wolf and dispatching the
barrages of notes with scary ease. But some of the ‘swing’ eludes
him, and he definitely misses much of the character of the slower
pieces (like “Intermezzo”). Kapustin’s reading is unlikely to
be surpassed by anyone in jazziness: the rhythmic precision,
at tempos slightly slower than Hamelin’s, is simply thrilling,
and one can almost go through the Kapustin disc track-by-track
and pinpoint his influences.
Thanks in part to the recording, Gordeladze’s pianism is fuller-bodied
and more colorful than her rivals’, and she does have some differences
of opinion with them (her “Remembrances” is a full minute and
a half longer than Kapustin’s own; hers is nearly a nocturne,
his slightly unsettling). I can’t quite say if she takes the
set so much more slowly than the competition because of a lack
of chops - that seems unlikely, but this is fiendishly
difficult music - or because of a tendency to classicize and
smooth out the music. The latter effect is achieved, so this
is probably a very good introduction to Kapustin for classical
listeners, much as the composer’s own recordings underline his
affinity for jazz.
Bottom line: it’s a testament to Kapustin’s quality as a composer
that his music can sustain numerous varied approaches and reveal
different characters under different artists’ fingers. If you
like one Kapustin piece, you’ll probably like the rest, a testament
both to the undeniable sameness of his output and to the consistently
high craftsmanship and inspiration. Catherine Gordeladze’s is
a new approach with great merit, and I hope it bodes the beginning
of a series.
see also the article on Kapustin by Leslie