Discovering Nikolai Kapustin

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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…

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