Nikolai KAPUSTIN (b. 1937)
Eight Concert Etudes, Op 40 (1984) [27:59]
24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op 53 (1988) [46:56]
Catherine Gordeladze (piano)
rec. 18-20 February, 2010, HR-Sendesaal, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt, Germany
NAXOS 8.572272 [74:55]
Nikolai Kapustin’s music is so entertaining, so instantly likable, that you’d be surprised to know it is controversial. He writes in the style of jazz, vintage piano jazz in the highly improvisatory, dashingly virtuosic manner of Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum.
Only it’s not jazz, and this is where Kapustin’s detractors grow anxious. All of his music is carefully and elaborately written out, and much of it is composed in strict classical forms: thus his piano sonatas really do use sonata form, his scherzos and dances deploy the meters and structures of classical dance movements - transformed beyond recognition - and his large-scale pieces, like the flute trio (recently reviewed here) and the brilliant string quartet, are convincing examples of classical architecture as well as daring essays in jazz idioms on unconventional instruments. Critics ask: classical or jazz, what will it be? Kapustin and his fans, of which I am very much one, answer: does it matter?
If I had to choose, I’d likely single out the Eight Concert Etudes as my favorite Kapustin: short, snappy works with a lot of range, they offer tune- and virtuosity-laden examples of his art. The subtitles, giving each etude the feel of a character piece, aren’t really always relevant; “Reminiscence” does feel rather wistful, but the “Pastoral” makes one wonder just what odd country scenes Kapustin was thinking of. I could see it as a genial county fair, perhaps. Particular joys to me are the last two, the “Intermezzo” opening a bit like a Brubeck-style lullaby with one of the composer’s most memorable hooks, in delicious contrast to the hectic perpetual motion of the finale.
The Twenty-Four Preludes in Jazz Style are a bit of a taller mountain to climb, being nearly fifty minutes long, and I do have to admit twenty-four of Kapustin’s miniatures in a row can be a bit much for one sitting. The language doesn’t quite admit as much variety as you might get from Chopin or Rachmaninov, say, since even when Kapustin slows down he adds his quasi-improvisatory filigree and playful thematic variation. Still, as piano jazz this would be first-rate, and as classical music it explores the greater freedom of the prelude structure but with the composer’s usual technical rigor. There are undoubted highlights: No 9 is an exquisite slow movement, as unadorned and Gershwin-ish in its melodic warmth as Kapustin has ever gotten; No 19 is a frolicking boogie which brings home its catchy tune in just 80 seconds; No 24 makes a satisfying conclusion, though the composer’s voice is so bright that it does not feel like D minor.
The attention of some major pianists has been turned to this repertoire, and Catherine Gordeladze is a worthy contender. I know two other recordings of the Eight Concert Etudes, Marc-André Hamelin’s on Hyperion and Kapustin’s own (hard to find). Hamelin, as you’d expect, is faster than everyone else, attacking the pieces like a hungry wolf and dispatching the barrages of notes with scary ease. But some of the ‘swing’ eludes him, and he definitely misses much of the character of the slower pieces (like “Intermezzo”). Kapustin’s reading is unlikely to be surpassed by anyone in jazziness: the rhythmic precision, at tempos slightly slower than Hamelin’s, is simply thrilling, and one can almost go through the Kapustin disc track-by-track and pinpoint his influences.
Thanks in part to the recording, Gordeladze’s pianism is fuller-bodied and more colorful than her rivals’, and she does have some differences of opinion with them (her “Remembrances” is a full minute and a half longer than Kapustin’s own; hers is nearly a nocturne, his slightly unsettling). I can’t quite say if she takes the set so much more slowly than the competition because of a lack of chops - that seems unlikely, but this is fiendishly difficult music - or because of a tendency to classicize and smooth out the music. The latter effect is achieved, so this is probably a very good introduction to Kapustin for classical listeners, much as the composer’s own recordings underline his affinity for jazz.
Bottom line: it’s a testament to Kapustin’s quality as a composer that his music can sustain numerous varied approaches and reveal different characters under different artists’ fingers. If you like one Kapustin piece, you’ll probably like the rest, a testament both to the undeniable sameness of his output and to the consistently high craftsmanship and inspiration. Catherine Gordeladze’s is a new approach with great merit, and I hope it bodes the beginning of a series.
Brian Reinhart
Classically-oriented listeners to Kapustin could start here, with music good enough to dispose of the question: is it classical or is it jazz?

see also the article on Kapustin by Leslie De’Ath