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Nicolai KAPUSTIN (b. 1937)
Trio Op. 86 [17:58]
Divertissement Op. 126 [18:59] *
Piano Trio No. 2 Op. 142 [19:11] *
Miguel Borrego (violin); José Miguel Gómez (cello); Juan Carlos Garvayo (piano)
rec. July 2012, Cezanne Producciones
* world premiere recording

My first acquaintance with the music of Nicolai Kapustin came when a piano student of mine chose the Toccatina Op. 36 as one piece in her Advanced Certificate programme. Essentially it offered her the opportunity to play a piece of structured piano jazz, exceedingly well. It’s evidently written by someone with an intimate knowledge both of the genre and the instrument – something challenging, yet fun to play, and enjoyable to listen to.

So when the opportunity to get to grips with three of his works for piano trio arose, I was obviously excited to see what Kapustin could achieve with the added two string instruments.

Initially I wasn’t disappointed. From the start of the first Trio the violin-playing is reminiscent of French jazz-master par excellence, Stephane Grappelli. His typical swooping attack is fully in evidence and within a minute both piano and violin get involved in a spot of boogie-woogie. Indeed, in the opening few minutes, the piano, not unsurprisingly, gets most of the action, which it shares melodically with the violin. The cello part at times seems somewhat peripheral, although it does get to mimic the string bass of the traditional jazz-piano trio. There’s also a moment towards the end of the fifth minute – albeit short-lived – where it comes to life. A rather unexpected piano flourish brings the opening Allegro molto to a close.

The ensuing Andante shows a greater degree of interplay between the two strings, and at times there is consequently an almost more classical feel to the proceedings, though this is soon dispelled once the characteristic driving rhythms kick back in. The music mingles the likes of Oscar Peterson and Gershwin with a semi-Hollywood ballad style, before moving abruptly into the final Allegro giocoso, with its once-more familiar motor rhythms and cadences.

At this point a slight niggle starts to emerge, namely the increasingly predictable nature of some of the rhythm patterns and harmonic progressions. Yes, it’s all clever, great fun, entertaining and easy to listen to, but will the remaining two pieces have something more or significantly different to say?

The opening of the Divertissement didn’t seem too hopeful in this respect. It appears almost to pick up where the first trio left off, rhythmically, harmonically and even in the way the three instruments are again deployed. True, there are some ‘cool’ cello-pizzicato moments, but much of this music appears interchangeable with other tracks on the CD. There is a pleasantly wistful feel to the opening of the Adagio, especially when a gently ‘Latin’ mood emerges. However, a greater sense of direction and thematic development could benefit here in giving the movement a little more shape, with its occasional allusions, intentional or otherwise, to Some Day My Prince Will Come, from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The Divertissement is blessed with four movements. In terms of rhythmic design, there is contrast between the third-movement Allegretto, and the Allegro vivace Finale. On the other hand there isn’t really the feeling that the extra movement provides the same degree of contrast as would be the case in a conventional four-movement piano trio, with a fast opening movement, slow movement, minuet (or faster scherzo) and a brisk finale.

The opening ideas and use of texture in the slightly slower Moderato that opens the Piano Trio No 2, does, however, seem to smack of something new in terms of composing style. A familiar lyrical section soon seems to look back again to the kind of writing heard in the first trio. That said, it would be harder to distinguish Kapustin’s by now fairly recognisable musical language, in quite every bar of this particular movement.

Flattened sevenths add a little ‘bluesy’ element to the ensuing Largo, which is still essentially eclectic in style, moving from one genre to another with relative ease. Harmonically-speaking there is definitely more to get your teeth into here, as a result of a greater sense of inventiveness in terms of chord progressions. The finale, too, has something more individual to say. Certainly, on an initial hearing, Kapustin wouldn’t necessarily be the first name to come to mind as the music’s composer, especially so in the last few bars before the work’s rather abrupt conclusion.

The performance and recording are both first rate, and clearly Trio Arbós pianist, Juan Carlos Garvayo, is a passionate exponent and aficionado of Nicolai Kapustin’s music. The programme notes – in their original Spanish, with a parallel English translation – very much seek to extol the virtues of the music. At times they do seem a little over-enthusiastic in this aim. There is the usual gripe that, while the notes have apparently been translated into English by Gordon Burt, there are still places where the original Spanish strangely shows through: ‘Kapustin respira esas músicas como si fuera el aire que necesita para vivir’…. which becomes ‘(He) breathes these musics as if they were the air he needs to live’… - a literal translation, but surely no native English-speaker, as one would assume Mr Burt is, would ever use ‘music’ in the plural.

Garvayo concludes by saying that the second trio is, ‘perhaps less outgoing than the two earlier Trios.’ This is surely the nub of the problem: if you want purely to be entertained by this attractive jazz-fusion composer, then the first trio is substantial enough to do the job. The Divertissement, while interesting in itself, doesn’t really add a great deal more to the equation. If you want to experience a seemingly more profound side of Kapustin’s style, then the second trio is the best vehicle, even if it might seem less familiar in concept, if you have already been weaned on Kapustin’s works for solo piano.

This is not an expensive CD, so whether you buy it for the first trio alone, or the second for a stylistic comparison – or simply for all three pieces because you already like Kapustin’s infectious style of writing, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

A good work-around, however, might be to consider a somewhat more expensive offering by Trio Panta Rhei on the Ars Produktion Label (ARS38097). This includes the first Kapustin trio, but here paired with companion works for piano trio by Gershwin, Daniel Schnyder and Leonard Bernstein.
Philip R Buttall