Piano Music

Excerpts from the sleeve notes

Recent flirtations between classical and more popular musics - whether it be Bryn Terfel singing Broadway tunes or Nigel Kennedy doing Hendrix - have provoked criticism from those fearing a general dilution of artistic integrity in favour of mass appeal and the quick buck. Of course, while such a trend has inherent dangers, the simple fact is that cross-fertilisation between musical genres has an honourable tradition stretching back centuries: Bach's quotation of a contemporary ditty at the end of the 'Goldberg' Variations, Brahms' assimilation of Hungarian gypsy music into his G minor Piano Quartet, and the jazz-influenced works of Ravel are but three examples (and who would
dare accuse Brahms and Ravel, both legendary perfectionists, of artistic laziness?).
So the blend of classical forms and jazz idiom that we find in the music of Nikolai Kapustin is clearly not without precedent, although perhaps the significance of jazz to this music is. Ravel's music makes occasional and relatively superficial use of jazz; Kapustin's music is unthinkable
without it.

The reason for this becomes clear when we look at his life. Born in 1937, Kapustin studied piano at the Moscow Conservatoire with Alexander Goldenweiser. At this time he was already composing, writing his first piano concerto in 1961. Over the years he has proved to be rather prolific,
his list of compositions to date including six piano concertos, ten piano sonatas, several concertos and sonatas for other instruments, and a large number of shorter works for solo piano (at the last count, he was up to Op 91). However, even during his period of study he was making a name for himself in Moscow as a jazz pianist, appearing with his own quintet as well as Yuri Saulsky's
Central Artist's Club Big Band. After graduating in 1961, he spent the next eleven years touring Russia and abroad with Leg Lundstrm's Jazz Orchestra. This active pursuit of a career playing jazz has had enormous repercussions on his composing: his musical language on every level - harmony, rhythm, melody, even structure - has become an intriguing blend of the classical and jazz traditions, to the extent that one would be hard pressed to say which is the more significant. In his rejection of much of the stylistic development of classical music this century (even atonality for the most part), he might appear either nave or opportunistic. I believe he is neither: behind the direct appeal of this
music, as we shall see, lies passion, integrity and considerable craft.

The first two piano sonatas date from 1984 and 1989 - surprisingly late in his career, when one considers that he had already fifty opuses under his belt including four piano concertos. Could it be that, intimidated by his predecessors, he shied away from the sonata, as did Brahms from the symphony? Perhaps the combination of intimacy and intensity the medium affords (think of
Beethoven' s late piano sonatas) daunted him where the more extrovert demands of a concerto did not. (Even the title of the first sonata - 'Sonata-Fantasia' - might suggest an attempt to grapple with the form somewhat obliquely.) Whatever the truth of this, the evidence shows that he put a good deal of thought into these initial essays.

At first glance one might imagine the title 'Sonata-Fantasia', with its suggestion of an improvisatory feel, to be an immediate indication of the influence of jazz on this work; in fact, if anything it emphasises the work's classical origins. In particular, the first three movements are played without a break, giving the impression of a constant stream of thought, a long-term structural approach that has numerous classical precedents including Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninov.

The rather short first movement functions almost as an introduction rather than the substantial movement one would normally expect. Improvisatory in feel (again in a 'classical' sense: the piano figuration is reminiscent of Scriabin or Rachmaninov), it begins ambiguously, never stating the tonic of D major until the entrance of the movement's principal melody. This melody was prefigured in
the opening, and but for a certain rhythmic complexity it could almost be a Broadway show tune. The movement progresses by the repetition of this melody in increasingly vehement form, with a little developmental interlude reminiscent of Scriabin's Fourth Sonata (it even starts in the same key), and a brief coda recalling the opening.

The second movement begins like the first: somewhat unstable and searching, but much more inward. The chromaticism of the harmonic language here draws heavily on jazz, but the absence of a clear tonality means the listener is never quite able to settle. There is a central section with more than a hint of rock music to it, before a return to the initial mood.

The last two movements are both fast and this creates a problem of balance: the third movement almost sounds as if it could be the finale. Here one feels that perhaps Kapustin has been unable to repress his evident relish, as a performer, of the sheer physical aspect of playing. However, matters are helped by the movement's concision, its lightness of feel (particularly in the jokey ending), and
the fact that it is not in the home key. The actual tonality of A minor incidentally has been presaged by the central section of the second movement and even by the emphasis on A at the very start of the work.

In contrast to the rather slight proportions of the first three movements, the fourth is a full-blown sonata form movement. Such blatant placing of the formal weight at the end of a work is unusual but not unprecedented - Beethoven experimented with this approach in the variations that end his piano
sonata Op 109, and it is perhaps no accident that this work also begins like an improvisation, thus emphasising the weight of the last movement. In both works, the composers seem intent on creating almost a narrative structure that leads the listener inexorably towards the finale. Apart from the extreme virtuosity and jazz-influenced syncopations that are hallmarks of Kapustin's style, it is also worth noting that the development of the fourth movement begins with a walking bass line, briefly transforming the piano into a one-man jazz combo. Here we find a significant point of intersection between the jazz and classical influences in Kapustin's work, as the sudden change of jazz idiom
serves to delineate the classical structure of the movement.

In the Second Sonata, we find similar concerns: a deep merging of disparate stylistic elements and a careful control of structure. The extroversion of the work is striking and immediately suggests a very different formal perspective from the Sonata-Fantasia: there is no initial searching here. Although on the surface it follows a conventional sonata form model, in fact the first movement
is rather ingeniously constructed. The second subject, far from being a lyrical contrast to the first, is if anything more vigorous, and we only find relief at the very end of the exposition as the music dissolves into quasi-improvisation. This injection of a spontaneous element is reflected in the development which begins with a somewhat academic treatment of the first subject only to give
way to pure jazz idioms - first Errol Garner-esque swing, then boogie-woogie. Then in the movement's coda the improvisatory ending of the exposition is much extended in a gentle and spontaneous musing on the work's opening theme. This sounds at once surprising and inevitable: surprising because it is preceded by so much activity, inevitable because it counterbalances that activity.

The second and third movements could perhaps be seen to continue the dichotomy of discipline and freedom that was set up in the first movement: the second is a muscular scherzo, tightly constructed, and the third is like a jazz ballad in style, unhurried and dreamy. Noteworthy in the second movement is the seamless blend of classical and jazz structure: the overall form is ABA but the
A section is based on a repeating harmonic progression derived from 12-bar blues.

After the calm of the third movement, the last positively explodes with raw energy. In style it is clearly influenced by Art Tatum with striding left hand and scintillating virtuosity (although in the midst of this, Kapustin manages to sneak a 12-note row into the compositional mix). However, it is also a remarkable metrical experiment: the time signature changes every bar in the repeating
pattern 4/4, 7/8, 4/4, 5/8, even during the more lyrical interludes. The daring of such a compositional gambit is indicative, I think, of the self-confidence that seems to pervade the whole sonata, and in rising to the challenge with apparent ease he rounds off one of his most impressive works.

Given that the prelude started life during the Renaissance as the improvised opening to a work, it seems particularly fitting that Kapustin should have tackled the genre. His 24 Preludes in Jazz Style (1988) are clearly influenced by Chopin, both in their key scheme, which exactly follows Chopin's model, and in their brevity: the 24 preludes of, say, Rachmaninov or Debussy are about twice
as long as Kapustin's or Chopin's set. He uses the format to present us with a great variety of jazz styles: in the preludes I have chosen here, there is blues (11), ballad (5,9), jazz waltz (18), swing (17,19), a hint of jazz funk (7,12) and even an affectionate allusion to Paul Desmond's 'Take Five' (13). The influence of jazz is further felt in numbers 11, 13, 15, 18 and 23, in which Kapustin follows the jazz practice of stating a melody and then improvising a new melody over the underlying chord structure, or rather in this case, writing down such an improvisation. This may seem an odd thing to do - what is the value in notating 'improvised' music, thus purging it of any true spontaneity? In fact, this is conundrum that has strong historical roots: classical performance was
long a mixture of the predetermined and the improvised, a balance which over the centuries has tilted in favour of the predetermined. For example, with the emergence of the notated concerto cadenza we see composers reducing the soloist's need to improvise, making it safer for all concerned but also
thereby taking the edge off the excitement of the moment: when it comes down to it, nothing else can quite create the combination of fear, concentration and exhilaration that the uncertainty of improvisation engenders. So it seems to me that in such cases notated improvisation is a necessary evil, in that it shows the style that the composer intends, but takes away from the feeling of
spontaneity that is also intended. The ideal solution would be to become so familiar with the
composer's idiom that one could dispense with the written notes in these passages (whether it be Mozart or Kapustin) and make it up on the spot. As to whether or not I actually improvise in the relevant places on this disc I well that would be telling now, wouldn't it?


Excellent site about Kapustin

Martin Anderson Interview for Fanfare

Harriett Smith Interview for Piano Quarterly

Review of His music on CD

Discography of Kapustin's Music

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