Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937) occupies a unique space in contemporary piano music. If you view his list of works on his Wikipedia page, you’ll see no less than 161 opuses, with a pretty consistent rate of production, particularly since 1999. If you browse YouTube, you’ll see dozens of videos of both professionals and amateurs playing his music. At one of the MTNA conferences (can’t remember if it was 2016 or 2017), I attended a session on Kapustin’s music that was packed – I had to sit on the floor.
So why is this Ukrainian/Russian composer so popular? Well, his music is really jazzy, and I’ve listened to enough to conclude that it’s also music of great craft, and an important contribution to piano literature. Nowhere is Kapustin’s seriousness of intent more clear than in his 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 82, where he impressively applies jazz styles to contrapuntal procedures. Some works resemble traditional jazz constructs with walking bass or stride (see Jazz Prelude No. 17 from 24 Jazz Preludes, Op. 53) and some are more abstract. Because of the seriousness and the craft, pianists have devoured these pieces as ideal concert encores – flashy, fun, crowd-pleasing, and satisfying. I myself never learned to play jazz, but after hearing certain Kapustin pieces I could already imagine myself storming the keyboard to raucous applause. But not every pianist will fare well in this music; some it is meticulously written-out improvisation, and you really have to have a flair for the style to pull it off. Comparing multiple YouTube performances of the same piece can show these weaknesses.
So with a large number of new Kapustin publications coming from Schott in the last few years, I thought I’d pick one and write about it. 3 Impromptus, Op. 66, is not a “new” piece, as it was written in 1991, but it’s newly published, so this will be the first time many pianists have a chance to look at it.
Impromptu No. 1 packs a lot of ideas into less than five minutes of music. On first listen it sounded a bit scattered, but when I started paying more attention to the bass I heard a lot of cohesion. There’s a main motive of a triplet and a dotted-eighth plus sixteenth, always with a similar melodic contour. It’s in the very first gesture of the piece, then stated repeatedly over walking tenths, pedal bass, or in other contexts. Kapustin deserves credit for constantly shifting the textures and rhythmic accents, putting our ears to work. We hear the consistency of melodic and rhythmic ideas, but they are developed in jazzy fantasias that keep pulling the rug out. A short B-section slows down the pace to some nice plush jazz chords before accelerating back to the opening material. A lot of the A-section music is recapitulated very closely to its original iteration, which allows the listener to better absorb the ideas before they’re gone in a flash.
The real winner of the set is Impromptu No. 2. Some jumping arpeggios in the right hand form a preview of later events before launching into a neat groove over a D pedal point. The second part of the groove sounds oddly like a fragment of music from some Sonic videogame, but I can’t quite place it. Kapustin’s next maneuver is a rhapsodic melody played in the thumbs of both hands while sixteenth notes swirl around. When the melody is restated in thick chords, the left hand takes over the running notes, with arpeggios modeled after the gestures of the opening. It’s a moment of traditional virtuosity that pianists and listeners can really dig into. Then he teases a return to the opening material that turns into sort of an improvisation on the material, in a more relaxed section over walking bass. Kudos to Kapustin for subverting expectations. Somewhere in the improvisation, he switches to double time, bringing back the groovy bass ostinato. The improv section crashes into a big restatement of the rhapsodic theme, and some flourishes lead to a recap of the opening groovy material. It’s really such a fun piece, and I’m most likely going to start learning it.
In Impromptu No. 3, Kapustin throws even more ideas at the listener than in No. 1. I can barely keep up with the music streaming out of his imagination, but the walking bass and jazzy harmonies put me in a state of wonder rather than anxiety. The closest semblance of a theme is a dizzying melodic contour in swinging eighths (you’ll know it when you hear it), but like many other pieces of material, it flashes quickly and then disappears into the maelstrom. I can’t fault Kapustin’s craft or his ability to maintain a high-energy mood, but I wish there was a little more to distinguish it. It’s still amazing piano literature, and surely a blast to play.
Listening to these three pieces multiple times brought me a little closer to the details of Kapustin’s music, and for that reason it’s even more incredible that this represents just a tiny portion of his output. I highly recommend digging into the Preludes and Fugues, the Jazz Preludes, the sonatas, and super fun stuff like his Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion.
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