About this Recording
8.570532 - KAPUSTIN: Piano Sonata No. 15 / Preludes / Etudes / Bagatelles

Nikolai Kapustin (b.1937)

Piano Music


I have always played classical music and jazz. Beethoven has been at the centre of my musical life for a long time, but so has Brubeck. The "third stream" aesthetic has influenced some of my own compositions such as Bossa Bachiana (for SATB and jazz trio) and Fughetta on 'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?' (for jazz quintet), so it was easy for me to fall in love with the piano music of Nikolai Kapustin, which blends classical and jazz styles. When I first heard the opening of Kapustin's Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 39, "Sonata-Fantasia", I remember thinking, "This sounds like Rachmaninov reincarnated as Oscar Peterson". Kapustin's pianistic textures are rich, spanning the entire keyboard, with melodies in every register, sweeping arpeggios, tons of chords, and a fantastic array of runs. Reading his bio, it became clear that such music is Kapustin's birthright: Ukrainian born (along with other pianistic legends like Gilels, Horowitz, and Richter) and Moscow trained (under the tutelage of Alexander Goldenweiser), Kapustin has Medtner, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin in his veins. But the jazz side is equally authentic. In addition to the fleet pianism of Oscar Peterson, whom, not surprisingly, Kapustin names as an influence, I hear the harmonic volatility and technical exuberance of Art Tatum. Kapustin's music also encompasses more modern sounds, such as McCoy Tyner's quartal voicings and the pop-tinged stylings of Keith Jarrett. I wonder about the possible influence of Yuri Saulsky and Oleg Lundström, two prominent Russian musicians with whose jazz bands Kapustin played. Jazz must have been more prevalent during the Soviet years than we in the West could have imagined.

The present disc contains the first recording of Kapustin's sprawling Piano Sonata No. 15, Op. 127, "Fantasia quasi Sonata" (a subtle reversal of the subtitle of his first sonata, indicating more compositional freedom?). In this dense work, there are four distinct movements, although the first three are played attacca. Thick textures and rapidly shifting tonal centres abound. After an improvisatory introduction, the first movement proper, Allegro assai, takes off in a driving 12/8 groove. A descending second forms the basis of the primary theme and crops up in the other movements as well. While the work could hardly be called monothematic, this cyclic aspect, along with the dramatic moods and fanciful modulations remind me of another famous four-movement sonata whose movements are connected, Schubert's Wandererfantasie, D. 760.

The slow second movement, Grave, starts out like late-night noodling, but soon gives way to a lightly swinging episode, only to return to the principal themes just long enough to make a transition to the third movement, Allegro scherzando. This scherzo whizzes by and soon the late-night noodling of the second movement returns. Theorists can argue whether the third movement exists as a separate entity, or merely as a dreamlike episode of the second movement. Perhaps Beethoven set the stage for such creative tampering with the sonata form, in such places as his Op. 101 Sonata, where a reference to the first movement reappears before the finale.

Just in case the pianist or the audience had drifted during the first three movements (fat chance), the last movement, Allegro rigoroso, wakes us up with unyielding rhythmic drive. It is cast as a sonata-rondo, and the descending-second motive of the previous movements is easily heard here throughout. Syncopations and polymeters, mostly laid over the 2/2 metre, abound. I hear a relation to the energized and intervallically rich bebop lines of Charlie Parker. A little more than two minutes into the movement, Kapustin brings in a bass-ostinato funk groove straight out of a James Brown session. Then the busy movement ends like cannonfire before you know it.

The five preludes I have chosen from Op. 53 start with No. 11, a slow, grinding blues reminiscent of Beale Street in Memphis. The air is thick with Marlboros. Guitars twang. Glasses clink. No. 12 reminds us alternatively of a tango or a 1970s detective TV show – Mannix in Argentina? No. 13 seems a gentle allusion to Paul Desmond's Take Five (in E flat minor; Prelude No. 13 is in the relative major of G flat major). That accompanying figure—pah-dum, pah-dum, pum, pum—will forever be associated with Dave Brubeck's vamp, created in 1959. No. 17 recalls the styles of bright stride or novelty piano: James P. Johnson meets Zez Confrey? No. 18 suggests another detectiveshow theme. Those jazzy F minor chords bring to mind the sound track of a James Bond movie.

Etude No. 5, Op. 40, "Raillery", comes from the world of boogie-woogie and barrelhouse piano – except that the disjunct bass line sounds dodecaphonic (but isn't). I doubt that Meade "Lux" Lewis, creator of Honky Tonk Train Blues (1927), had much use for Arnold Schoenberg, unlike Kapustin. Etude No. 6, "Pastoral", evokes an Appalachian banjo line at first, before morphing into themes from a Broadway show. For someone who allegedly dislikes travel, Kapustin sure gets out a lot (at least musically). Etude No. 7, "Intermezzo", sounds like something Art Tatum might have dashed out, a happy stride number such as Ja-Da (also in D flat major). It starts innocently enough, but then a veritable thirds etude is unleashed at the end: Art Tatum meets Leopold Godowsky?

I picked these three Bagatelles from Op. 59 precisely because of their slow tempos and reflective character. No. 2, Larghetto, recalls one of those slow Basie charts such as The Second Time Around (again in D flat major, coincidentally, like this bagatelle), where downbeats reluctantly appear and the swing is so laid back that bar lines are merely theoretical. No. 5, Largo, has a crepuscular glow and a longing quality. There is an undeniable relation to Scriabin here, but it is mysteriously elusive and difficult to define. No. 8, Adagio, reminds me of a Herbie Hancock groove, although after a minute we're at a sweeping Sondheim finale on Broadway. I have extracted the second movement from Kapustin's Sonata No. 2, Op. 54, the Scherzo, to end this disc. Like the Etude No. 5, this Scherzo is indebted to the boisterous world of barrelhouse and blues, but with a more explicit connection to dodecaphonic procedures. The first section gathers steam through a rollicking 12/8 blues, and Ds hammered out repetitively in the lower range of the keyboard. The trio section calms down (comparatively) by recalling the happy stride of Erroll Garner. Of course, the hammered Ds return, interspersed with tone rows, ending with a bang.

So there you have it. Welcome to Kapustin's phantasmagoric musical dacha, where Arnold Schoenberg boogies with Meade "Lux" Lewis, Art Tatum morphs into Leopold Godowsky, and Alexander Scriabin shares the piano bench with Count Basie. Sergey Rachmaninov, Zez Confrey, James P. Johnson, Stephen Sondheim, and Franz Schubert are there too, egging Kapustin's many alter egos on to ever wilder flights of musical fancy. We are the happy flies on the wall, drunk with joy.

John Salmon


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