Yeol Eum Son plays Kapustin

Products featured on Pianodao are selected for review by ANDREW EALES.

South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, since bursting onto the classical music scene (when she was aged just 18) as a concerto soloist with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Lorin Maazel in 2004, has steadily developed an impressive discography with Decca and latterly with Onyx.

Highlights have included solo recitals of repertoire from Schumann to Stravinsky, a pristine recording of Mozart’s 21st Concerto with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner, and duo recordings with violinists Clara-Jumi Kang, Svetlin Roussev and oboist Kyeong Ham.

But for the unconverted, Son’s latest disc, an audacious recital of music by Kapustin, wipes away any doubt that she is a significant emerging artist for our century. And it is another easy choice for inclusion in my Recording of the Month series. So let’s find out more…

A Kapustin Recital

Writing her own (excellent and informative) booklet note, Son enthuses,

“There are many great contemporary composers of our time, but few write music that we can relate to so easily and closely as Nikolai Kapustin. His exquisite use of the techniques and musical languages of classical and jazz ensures that his music appeals to a wide range of listeners. To those who love classical music but know little about jazz it does not sound too unfamiliar, and vice-versa. Indeed, it gives great pleasure to even the most untrained ears of either genre of music.”

Kapustin, who died last year, 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. He also had his own jazz 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.

But Kapustin’s instincts for scoring concrete compositions in the classical manner dominated from the 1980s; he subsequently concentrated on adapting jazz idioms within the context of formal classical structures.

The extensive catalogue of solo piano music which resulted is increasingly recognised as one of the significant landmarks of the contemporary recital repertoire. Kapustin’s piano writing is rhythmically complex and highly virtuosic, making huge technical and musical demands on the performer.

For those yet to discovered his music, there’s no time like the present, and in my view no better introduction than Yeol Eum Son’s new recording, which showcases the wide range of his music:

  • Eight Concert Études, Op.40
  • Variations, Op.41
  • Moon Rainbow, Op.161
  • Sonatina, Op.100
  • Piano Sonata No.2 in E, Op.54

A Kapustin Champion

The inclusion of the Variations Op.41 is telling; Son recalls,

“A decade ago, I played Kapustin’s Variations Op.41 in the Great Hall of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory (his alma mater) in the second round of the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition. To my knowledge, I was the first person to perform his music at this competition.”

The following day, Kapustin’s publisher contacted her. Son was introduced to the composer, and so began a professional friendship that endured until his death in 2020, Kapustin remaining grateful for her efforts to introduce his music to a wider public, and thrilled by her playing.

That Son has ‘lived with’ the Variations is obvious, such is her way with this music. The piece itself is a stunning work. Built around a jazz reworking of the opening melody from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the piece runs a gamut of jazz piano styles in its short duration (under 8 minutes). Son brings both panache and sensitivity to the hidden currents in the music.

The many moods of the Eight Concert Études similarly provide the perfect stage for Son to demonstrate her profound identification with Kapustin’s music, and in particular the nuances and inflections of mood that lesser readings lack. Here, the acerbic and rhythmically propulsive elements in the music seem engaged in a fantastical dance with the lyrical moments and yearningly romantic melodies, all exquisitely balanced.

Son tells us,

“In Kapustin, you can hear a heavy melancholy reminiscent of Rachmaninov, and also the extremely polished and refined sounds of Ravel or Stravinsky. He is masterful in continuously changing keys and tempi to create contrasting atmospheres.”

Brilliance follows brilliance with the inclusion of the bluesy Moon Rainbow and quirky Sonatina Op.100, Son allowing each hue to fully bloom, even if gone in an instant.

We come finally to the most highly developed structure of the recital, the enormous Piano Sonata No.2 in E, Op.54. The Sonata has previously been recorded (superbly) by Steven Osborne and is establishing itself as one of the composer’s most popular works.

Son’s magnificent reading of the Sonata is a happy companion to Osborne’s, his perhaps the more robust but hers truly magical; as ever in this recital, Son superbly reveals and delights in each and every expressive detail, without once losing sight of the grander design underpinning the work.

Closing Thoughts

Produced by Matthew Cosgrove and recorded in the Théâtre popular romand, Salle de musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland in February 2021, the piano sound on this disc manages to be both intimate and spacious, with a warmth and detail that captures Son’s always eloquent playing at its best.

The Onyx packaging is standard fare, the booklet including Son’s introduction in English, German and Korean. The rather distinctive artist photos are credited to ‘three chairs’.

With an unbalanced choice of repertoire or one-dimensional approach to playing it, the virtuoso exuberance of Kapustin’s music can quickly become tiring. Yeol Eum Son’s superb recording makes neither of these errors, instead delivering a detailed, emotionally alert exegesis of the inner world of this brilliant composer’s oeuvre.

In my view this wonderful recording offers the best introduction yet to the extraordinary music of Nikolai Kapustin, and is surely also Yeol Eum Son’s finest achievement to date. Don’t miss it!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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