Without doubt one of the more interesting, indeed extraordinary, composers of our times, Nikolai Kapustin was born in the town of Gorlovka in eastern Ukraine in 1937.
At the age of 14 he relocated to Moscow, studying piano at the Conservatoire, and announcing his composing career in 1957 with the Concertino for piano and orchestra Op.1. During this time he also had his own quintet and was a member of Yuri Saulsky’s Big Band; his enthusiasm for jazz continued after graduation when he joined the Oleg Lundstem Big Band.
Focussing purely on composing from the 1980s, Kapustin uses jazz idioms within the context of formal classical structures, writing orchestral, chamber and piano solo works for the concert hall.
Kapustin’s piano writing is for the most part rhythmically complex and highly virtuosic, making huge technical and musical demands on the performer.
Although his jazz-infused classical music is gaining an ever-larger audience of enthusiastic connoisseurs, few of us it seems have found a suitable entry point for learning and performing his works, in spite of the fact that his publishers Schott Music have many of his solo piano works available in print.
Schott’s two latest additions to the Kapustin catalogue may provide impetus, however: the Sonata No.6 Op.62 (1991) and Sonatina Op.100 are among his more approachable works, and should be accessible to players upwards from UK Grade 8 to Diploma level.
Sonata No.6 Op.62 (1991)
According to Schott Music,
“Piano Sonata No.6 Op.62 is the shortest of the thirteen piano sonatas written by Nikolai Kapustin to date. The three movements are full of twists and surprises, with excursions into boogie-woogie.”
This music – with its cross rhythms, advanced harmonies, shifting moods and excursions into identifiable jazz vamps and tropes – could easily be mistaken for the improvisation of the most advanced jazz pianist, although in reality it is scored out with painstaking attention to detail.
Listen for yourself, in this recording of the composer himself performing the work:
Looking at the score, which I should add is beautifully engraved and spaciously presented in Schott’s superb high-end publication, it is the rhythmic writing that appears to present the immediate challenge. In every sense, however, I would say that this work is every bit as hard to play as it sounds!
For a player at diploma level, with an enthusiasm for playing in a virtuosic jazz style, Sonata No.6 would make a brilliant starting point, and an admirable challenge to pursue.
Sonatina Op.100 (2000)
Meanwhile, for those not ready for Sonata No.6 (probably most of us!), the Sonatina Op.100 offers a more accessible launch-pad for exploring Kapustin’s music.
Masahiro Kawakami introduces the work with this Preface:
“There are very few pieces in the Nikolai Kapustin œuvre like this Sonatina intentionally written as an easy piece…”
I would say that the piece could actually be attempted from around UK Grade 8, and would make a brilliant addition to an ARSM programme (one of my own students is currently learning the piece with exactly this in mind).
The Sonatina has only one movement; various jazz elements again appear throughout, albeit here within the framework of a small-scale classical sonata form movement, all treated with wit and panache. Here’s a recording to introduce you to this fabulous piece:
As with the Sonata, Schott have excelled themselves in producing a classy, high-quality score, nestling within a striking cover featuring the dynamic artwork of Wassily Kandinsky.
If you haven’t yet discovered the music of Nikolai Kapustin, there’s no time like the present. I rather expect that we will be hearing a lot more of his music in concert halls and recitals in the coming months and years, and it is genuinely wonderful that Schott Music are promoting his work through such outstanding scores.
The Sonatina makes for a brilliant starting point, and Sonata No.6 offers a challenge which I suspect will absorb the time of the most fearless players, but reward their efforts in spades. These are truly fabulous pieces!
To explore the full catalogue of Kapustin piano music available from Schott Music online, click here.