About a month ago the London-based Piano Classics label released a recording of selected compositions by Nikolai Kapustin performed by Korean pianist Sun Hee You. Kapustin was born in 1937 in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and his music tends to be about as challenging as it is eclectic. This evening in San Francisco, the pianist Thomas Otten will be visiting from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to give a recital of the music of African-American composer H. Leslie Adams. Otten describes Adams’ music as “Rachmaninoff meets Burt Bacharach.” From that point of view, Kapustin is far more refined. His music is more like Alexander Scriabin meeting Art Tatum.
You has arranged her album in chronological order. The opening selection is Kapustin’s Opus 39 (first) piano sonata, composed in 1984, which (in the Scriabin spirit) he calls a “Sonata-Fantasy.” At the other end is the seventh sonata (Opus 64), composed in 1991. (For the record the “sonata count” is now up to twenty with the composition of Opus 143 and Opus 144 in 2011.) Between Opus 39 and Opus 64 You performs selections from two collections, two of the eight concert études from Opus 40 (1984) and two of the bagatelles from Opus 59 (1991). Whether the years are those of the two sonatas are a matter of coincidence is open to speculation; but You’s notes for the booklet (translated into English by Emanuelle De Biase) seem aware of the proximity. The album also has an “encore track” of the Opus 41 set of variations, which was also composed in 1984.
Here in the United States, Kapustin’s music is probably best known due to the advocacy of pianist Yuja Wang, who performed his Opus 41 in a San Francisco recital in October of 2013. She may be responsible for the above association with Tatum, since her encores include transcriptions of some of Tatum’s more familiar solo recordings (such as “Tea for Two”). While it is probably the case that Kapustin has set down all of the details in his scores, his music has a delightfully improvisational feel to it. You is excellent in capturing not only the illusion of spontaneity but also the playfulness from which that spontaneity emerges, a playfulness than can be found not only in Tatum but also in his near contemporary, Fats Waller (not to mention Waller’s teacher, James P. Johnson). Thus she is just as comfortable slipping in a reference to Jule Styne’s “Time After Time” as she is with a citation from the opening measures of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.”
Listening to Kapustin’s music in concert makes for a demanding experience. Like his jazz counterparts he can pack so much into his embellishments that one can easily lose track of what is being embellished. As a result good recordings of performances of his music are valuable, since they can help orient the mind behind the ear in the finer points of Kapustin’s logic, grammar, and rhetoric of embellishment. You’s new release is definitely one of those recordings that will assist those interested in becoming better acquainted with Kapustin’s music.