Discovering Nikolai Kapustin

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

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 of Russian-Jewish descent.

At the age of 14, the young Kapustin 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 onwards, Kapustin uses jazz idioms within the context of formal classical structures, writing orchestral, chamber and piano solo works for the concert hall.

Kapustin died in Moscow in 2020, aged 82, leaving behind an extensive catalogue of solo piano music. His jazz-infused writing is for the most part rhythmically complex and highly virtuosic, making huge technical and musical demands on the performer. Despite these challenges, his body of work is increasingly recognised as one of the significant landmarks of the contemporary recital repertoire.

While Kapustin’s best-known works steadily 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.

In this review, I will therefore present and consider some of the more approachable works of Kapustin’s large catalogue…

Piano Works (anthology)

Perhaps the best place to start, this anthology (edition ED 22929) brings together a selection of Kapustin’s most popular earlier pieces, all composed between 1977-87:

  • Sunrise (Daybreak), op.26
  • Suite in the Old Style, op.28
  • Toccatina, op.36
  • Variations, op.41
  • Motive Force, op.45
  • Big Band Sounds, op.46
  • Contemplation, op.47

In these milestone pieces, the jazz and jazz-rock influences are at their most obvious and accessible, and indeed the seven works have been similarly compiled in a CD recording of the composer entitled Jazz Pieces for Piano.

The popular and coruscating Motive Force op.45, which features in this collection, has also recently been issued as a single piece (ED 22979) for those who just want that, but the anthology offers attractive value.

Sonatina Op.100 (2000)

Kapustin’s Sonatina Op.100 offers another accessible launch-pad for exploring Kapustin’s music, and has featured on the UK Grade 8 exam syllabus. Masahiro Kawakami introduces Schott’s edition of the work with this Preface:

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:

Schott have excelled themselves in producing a classy, high-quality score, nestling within a striking cover featuring the dynamic artwork of Wassily Kandinsky.


Berceuse Op.65

Also at the easier end of the Kapustin spectrum, this beautiful and more subtle composition from 1991 (ED 22978) offers a delicious contrast to the other works on offer here.

With its made-for-Hollywood central melody and fabulously chromatic harmonies that veer between late Rachmaninov and classic Bill Evans, here’s a highly lyrical piece which could have wide appeal; it is easily my personal favourite of the pieces included in this review.

Here’s the composer’s own recording of it:

Sonata No.6 Op.62 (1991)

Kapustin composed 20 Piano Sonatas, of which this is perhaps the most accessible, and the shortest.

This music, with its cross rhythms, advanced harmonies, shifting moods and excursions into boogie-woogie, 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.


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.

Between these, the Berceuse Op.65 and jazzy works of the Piano Anthology, there is a wide choice of great music awaiting discovery. To explore the full catalogue of Kapustin piano music available from Musicroom, follow this link:

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.