Exploring the Piano Music of Nikolai Kapustin

Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES

Kapustin’s extensive catalogue of solo piano music is increasingly recognised as one of the significant landmarks of the contemporary recital repertoire.

In an earlier review Discovering the Piano Music of Nikolai Kapustin I had a look at two contrasting works, the fiendishly difficult Sonata No.6 Op.62 (1991), and the more accessible (and now highly popular) Sonatina Op.100 (2000), new editions of which Schott Music had recently released.

Since then, Schott have been continuing to refresh the Kapustin catalogue (theirs since 2013) with new editions of his solo works appearing at regular intervals.

In this follow-up I will be giving a quick round-up of all the latest arrivals. Of these it must be noted that even the least assuming pieces here are rightly classified as “virtuoso”, being at least Diploma level in difficulty.

In all cases, these works are fully scored-out compositions in the classical vein, but heavily imbued with the language, techniques and aesthetics of contemporary jazz, leaning on influences that encompass modern jazz piano icons from Thelonious Monk to McCoy Tyner and beyond.

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

Here, 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, included here, has also recently been issued as a single piece (ED 22979) for those who just want that, but the anthology offers attractive value.

3 Etudes Op.67

The 3 Etudes op.67 (ED 22993) are still more virtuosic, and though perhaps not yet as well known as his 8 Concert Studies op.40, they are becoming increasingly popular as recital encore pieces.

In some respects these pieces follow in the traditions of Liszt, Lyapunov and others; but here again the music is infused with a vivacious jazz ebullience.

As exercises, they focus on, respectively, glissandi, rapidly repeating notes, and the lightning-fast realisation of extended jazz chords.

6 Little Pieces Op.133

If the Suite in the Old Style (included in the Piano Works anthology above) offered a jazz spin on an older convention, the 6 Little Pieces op.133 (ED 22994) similarly follow that traditional pattern, albeit less conspicuously.

Composed in 2007, the music here is quirky in the extreme, perhaps emulating Monk, lending the impression that perhaps six miniature scherzi in jazz styles have converged.

Though easier than some of the other music covered in this review, they would still present a considerable, if more plausible challenge for the post-Grade 8 player.

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:

Humoresque Op.75

From the sublime to, perhaps, the ridiculous?

The Humoresque Op.75 (ED 22992), dating from 1994, is considered one of Kapustin’s more difficult works to perform, and with its relentless momentum it’s easy to see why. Despite the lighter touch implied by its title, the Humoresque is an intense piece from start to finish.

Apparently influenced by the playing style of jazz legend McCoy Tyner, it’s fair to say that by this point in his career, Kapustin had shifted from scoring out jazz pieces to composing virtuoso recital repertoire in which the jazz elements have become an integral element of the core DNA.

Sonata No.12 Op.102

Dating from 2001, the Sonata No.12 (ED 22995) further illustrates this point, and is another incredibly challenging work. Set in two movements, the Sonata lasts for around 12 minutes in performance.

The first movement, like so much of Kapustin’s music, sounds quasi-improvisatory while being notated in the minutest detail. From a lyrical opening, the movement traverses a multiplicity of musical ideas and thematic contrasts before retiring on a more capricious note.

The second movement begins life as another of Kapustin’s perpetual motion pieces but here, again, there are moments for reflection before the dazzling, eviscerating ending. The Sonata certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted!


My expectation is that Kapustin’s music will only grow in popularity in the coming years. And Schott Music continue to deliver scores of first class quality, with beautiful engraving, well-spaced notation, quality cream paper and an all-round classy presentation.

Make no mistake: Kapustin’s compositions fully deserve this first-class treatment. These are consistently inventive, fabulous compositions which combine originality, intellectual bravura, and an insider’s knowledge of how to marshal astonishing pianism.

With celebrated performers of Yuja Wang’s global stature embracing Kapustin’s works, every indication is that audiences are quickly (if belatedly) falling under this composer’s uniquely compelling spell.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published composer and author based on Milton Keynes UK.

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