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Nikolai KAPUSTIN (1937-2020)
Piano Concerto No 4, Op 56 (1989) [21:39]
Concerto for violin, piano and string orchestra, Op 105 (2002) [21:29]
Chamber symphony, Op 57 (1990) [21:12]
Frank Dupree (piano), Rosanne Philippens (violin), Meinhard Jenne (percussion), Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn/Case Scaglione (concertos), Frank Dupree (symphony)
rec. Sulmtahalle, Erlenbach and Harmonie, Heilbronn, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5437 [64:20]

Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin was born in Horlivka in Ukraine and his initial studies were with Felix Blumenfeld, pupil Avrelian Rubakh, who supported him in his love of jazz that had blossomed at an early age. In Moscow he studied with Alexander Goldenweiser, a renowned teacher with a who's who of stellar pupils including Lazar Berman, Grigory Ginzburg, Rosa Tamarkina and Tatiana Nikolayeva. He gained early experience playing, composing and arranging jazz for his own quintet and playing with Yury Saulsky's big band and the Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra – his performance of his 1964 Toccata for piano and big band can be found on YouTube and is a staggering display of Kapustin's rock solid technique and natural sense of swing. His classical upbringing and love of jazz combine in all his works and it is often pointed out that while his music has elements of jazz improvisation it is actually all meticulously notated; Kapustin maintained that he was not a jazz pianist as he wasn't a fan of improvisation though his early career must have required it of him.

My first introduction to Nikolai Kapustin's wonderful music was hearing Marc-André Hamelin playing some on one of the backstage pianos at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Soon after that Hyperion released Stephen Osbourne's selection of his solo piano music and I was hooked. I soon discovered that there was already a small amount of his music already on disc and since then even LP recordings of Kapustin have seen the light of day – they include his Marche, Op 24 which always strikes me as the theme tune to a 1970s quiz show. While his discography is now quite extensive the piano concertos have lagged behind somewhat so it is wonderful to have this vibrant performance of the fourth concerto.

The fourth concerto was written in 1989 and is in one continuous movement, divided into three sections. The first part, allegro molto, has a toccata-like drive and is based on the opening 4 note motif; it also contains a more lyrical second theme based on a rising motif, the accompanying figures of which segue seamlessly back into the opening music. The slow second section opens with an extended ruminative passage for the soloist who then adds decorative figuration as the orchestra takes over. The classical influence can be felt in a lot of the keyboard textures here which despite their jazz harmonies hark back to Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and the late romantics. The final section combines music from earlier in the concerto with another hard driven motif and a good dose of swing; it also encompasses another extended passage for solo piano, ruminative and manic by turns, before the vibrant exciting finale.

The Concerto for violin, piano and string orchestra follows the traditional three movement format. The opening Allegro non troppo starts with interjections between orchestra and the two soloists who go on to exchange parts in a short duet. Now we've warmed up, the orchestra has an extended formal opening after which the soloists have little rest and play off each other with great virtuosity and seemingly no end of fun. Both players are comfortable in the idiom and it is a delight to hear violinist Rosanne Philippens enjoying every bent, blues and sliding note as if she was born to it. I love the ending that winds down and down to nothing, the violin's notes harmonics disappearing into the atmosphere and the piano's hushed final flourish running down the keys.

The opening of the second movement has all the overt passion of a 1940s cinema romance. The violin takes main stage here with the opening theme, piano and orchestra in an accompanying role but as things move on and the passion intensifies more of a duet ensues. Heart on sleeve emotion is very much the order of the day here. The finale is bright and colourful with almost comic touches in a lot of the writing, harking back to ragtime. Two minutes in and the light-hearted nature of the music bubbles over into full-on ebullience with stride piano entering the fray and the violin soloist bouncing off the strings in response. The whole concerto is utterly joyful and all involved enjoy its over-the-top emotions and pyrotechnics.

The Chamber symphony completed the year after the fourth concerto is Kapustin's final work for orchestra, excepting those with soloists. Ominous drumbeats herald the enigmatic introduction in which the flutes obstinately sing out a short motif that leads into the movement proper. Rich string textures act as a more lyrical heart, short lived though it is and the movement continues with interspersed jazz and contrapuntal passages. It is notable that Kapustin moves between textures fairly often, rarely letting one stay for long. The aggressive, spiky cross rhythms of parts of the development give way to delicate swing passages with swooning strings and accompanying winds which are in turn usurped by short episodic motifs and so on. Contrapuntal passages for the winds feature in the slow movement giving way to a determined angular theme in the lower strings; there are almost fugal elements to some of the string writing as the movement progresses. The final movement is a hectic toccata that varies between full orchestra motoric rhythms and transparent textures where instrumental solos play over quiet percussion.

Kapustin's trademark rhythmic complexity and writing based on jazz riffs and short motifs rather than extended melody are all very evident here as is his vibrant energy. His brand of symphonic jazz repays repeated listening - the kaleidoscopic canvas of sound occasionally disguises the subtleties that lie along the way – and though it doesn't have the dated feel of some of his earlier music, the aforementioned Marche or Concert rhapsodie, Op 76 for instance, there is much here that could have come from anytime in the last 80 years. Regarding the performances I have no complaints; the orchestra and soloists have a great feel for the music and play it with great gusto and blistering virtuosity. I am very glad to read in Frank Dupree's personal booklet notes that the next Kapustin recording is already in the works, hopefully the first of many; it would certainly be marvellous to hear the other piano concertos alongside the other piano and instrumental concertante works.

Rob Challinor



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