Rhinegold Photo credit: Peter Andersen
Nikolai Kapustin (1937-2020)

Benjamin Ivry

Remembering Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin

9:06, 2nd November 2020

Nikolai Kapustin, the Ukrainian pianist and composer who died in July aged 82, was cherished for his richly characterful piano works that exuded a rollicking, celebratory quality. They have been played with commanding gusto by star pianists such as Marc-André Hamelin, Steven Osborne, Nikolai Lugansky and Yuja Wang.

Although Kapustin’s jazz influences have been widely described, many of his works have no jazz elements, such as the second of his Eight Concert Etudes Op 40, ‘Dream’, or the sixth of this set, ‘Pastoral’ – the latter surely one of the most urban-sounding pastorals ever composed, as if evoking rush hour in Moscow traffic.

Several of Kapustin’s works demand startling bravura to capture their frantic, exalted zaniness, such as the Five Etudes in Different Intervals Op 68, particularly the first, marked ‘Allegro: Etude in minor second’ and the fourth, marked ‘Vivace: Etude in major seconds’. Elsewhere, Kapustin’s relaxed writing radiates joyous affection, like his Aquarela do Brasil by Ary Barroso, Paraphrase for Piano Op 118.

This range and variety may have led to misunderstandings. Two editions of an encyclopedic Russian guide to 20th-century jazz by the musicologist Vladimir Feiertag cite a nonexistent Teaching Manual for Jazz Piano supposedly authored by Kapustin but which the composer protested he never wrote.

Like many pianists of his generation, Kapustin saw jazz, long banned by Soviet authorities, as a symbol of freedom. But he never claimed to be a jazz pianist, disliking improvisation. Instead, his first piano lessons as a boy were with a violinist, Piotr Vinnichenko, followed by a pianist, Lubov’ Frantsuzova, a former pupil of Samuel Maykapar, a noted keyboard pedagogue.

Frantsuzova prepared Kapustin for the Moscow class of Avrelian Rubakh, a student of Felix Blumenfeld, the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere. With Rubakh, Kapustin conquered virtuoso works such as Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan. Kapustin also nominally worked with the octogenarian Alexander Goldenweiser, but claimed that the latter, although a fount of anecdotes, was by then useless for practical advice.

Kapustin’s graduation performances included Prokofiev’s daunting Second Piano Concerto. A surviving recording from 1958 displays his technique at age 21, performing a concerto by the contemporary Russian composer Yevgeny Stikhin (b 1932) with considerable point and edge.

Possibly stage fright led to a decay in Kapustin’s pianistic abilities. Although he would continue to record in the studio, he became a relative recluse in later years, while creating works that test the skills of ideally gifted pianists. His own recordings, available from the Japanese Triton label, have inspired a flood of theses about his work since 2007, examining his blend of classical and jazz elements.

These cite such apparent influences as Bill Evans, Errol Garner, Rachmaninov Scriabin, and Medtner while Kapustin would claim links to Gershwin, Milhaud, Ravel and even Friedrich Gulda. Ultimately, the value and originality of his output makes Kapustin at his best a one-off beholden to no one from the past, among either classical or jazz piano predecessors.

Nikolai Kapustin, pianist and composer, born 22 November 1937; died 2 July 2020

From Rhinegold Media & Events
Featured products