Obit Nikolai Kapustin

The news of the death of Nikolai Kapustin – on 2 July 2020, at the age of 82 – has sent me scurrying to my archive, to blow the dust off this interview, which appeared in Fanfare, Vol. 24, No. 1 (September/October 2000). I mention in the article that Kapustin had taken the train from Moscow to London; his friend Ashot Akopian, who met him at Waterloo, later told me: ‘When Nikolai got off the train, he was green’.

Kapustin wasn’t an easy subject to begin with: when I met him, he had just given an interview to Harriet Smith, who was writing a piece for Gramophone, and he resented having to say some of the same things all over again – ‘I just said all this to your colleague’. But with time he opened up – and his wish that ‘I don’t want to become famous’ was never to be granted.

I had a rather privileged introduction to Kapustin’s music. Perhaps a year, maybe more, or so before his visit, Marc-André Hamelin, in London for concerts or recording or both (I forget), rang up to say that he had recently discovered the music of this Russian composer called Kapustin and he just had to come round and play me some. I warned him that my piano hadn’t been tuned for some time, and wasn’t in very good nick anyway. He said he was sure it would be OK, but I saw his face fall when he started to play. He carried on bravely, and so I first heard Kapustin in the very room where I am now typing these words.

Anyway, here’s the article, which appeared just as Kapustin’s star was beginning its ascent.

Nikolai Kapustin, Russian Composer of Classical Jazz

A year ago almost no one in the West had heard of the Russian composer, Nikolai Kapustin, born in 1937. His representation in the discographies was minimal: Nikolai Petrov’s recordings of the Second Piano Sonata and an Intermezzo for piano were available on two Olympia CDs (OCD 280 and 273), and that was it. Nor did the music turn up on concert platforms – musicians didn’t know about the music any more than the rest of us did. We should have done, of course, because the music itself is unique: an idiomatic and convincing fusion of the language of jazz and the structural discipline of classical music – and this is real fusion, not the populist pap currently being paraded in front of the microphones. There are, moreover, almost one hundred Kapustin compositions, in the major forms of the western musical tradition: concertos, sonatas, chamber and instrumental music. Now, at last, the occidental public profile of Kapustin’s music has taken a dramatic turn for the better. A major recording company – Hyperion – has taken an interest in his music: Steven Osborne has released a CD of the First and Second Piano Sonatas and thirteen of the 24 Jazz Preludes (CDA67159). And a major international pianist has taken up Kapustin in the best way possible: Marc-André Hamelin currently touring the Second Sonata around the world. Kapustin is now international news. 

Earlier this year, in May, Hamelin gave the western premiere of the Second Piano Sonata at a ‘Hamelin weekend’ at the Blackheath Concert Halls in south-east London, and Kapustin made the journey from Moscow for the occasion – not an easy decision, I imagine, since he does not like flying, and the trip meant three days in a train across the length of Europe. An opportunity to interview such a rare visitor – and such an unusual musical phenomenon – was not to be missed. But my rudimentary Russian is much worse than Kapustin’s English (which he reads well but, unpractised, is reluctant to speak), and so we called on the help of Ashot Akopian, General Director of the Russian recording production company A-RAM, to translate. Kapustin, a dapper, silver-haired, well-trimmed chap of moderate height, with elegant moustache, shaded glasses, and a cigarette never far from his mouth – you can almost imagine him taking a role in a Hollywood cops-and-robbers special – is plainly unused to interviews; the answers came hesitantly, and sometimes with telegraphic brevity.

I asked him first whether, in view of the co-existence of the two different styles in his output, whether he considered himself a jazz or a classical musician. ‘I was never a jazz musician.’ So his studies took him through the standard pianist’s education, with Bach, Clementi and so on? ‘Yes, of course.’ So when did jazz first enter his life? ‘At sixteen I began studying jazz.’ Kapustin was one of the last pupils of that legendary pedagogue Alexander Goldenweiser, professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatoire for 55 years; his appointment, indeed, was made in 1906. How did Kapustin find Goldenweiser? ‘I went to him when I was eighteen. He was a very interesting person – he remembered Rachmaninov and Medtner, so it was very interesting to speak with him. But as a teacher he gave nothing, because he was very old – he was already 81.’ But he had known virtually every Russian composer of any stature for decades: did Kapustin feel aware of a link with those past masters? ‘Yes, I felt like they were alive, as if they were here. He told me what they said, how things happened – things you will never read in books about these composers. That was the main interest. And he liked me very much. I had another teacher, a great teacher, but nobody knows about him – Avrelian Rubakh. He was a student of Blumenfeld.’ Rubakh is an unknown quantity outside some highly specialised circles, though Feliks Blumenfeld, of course, is at last becoming recognised in the west as a composer (indeed, Philip Thomson has just released a CD of the complete Blumenfeld preludes and impromptus on Ivory Classics, 71002), but for decades he was known almost exclusively as the teacher of Simon Barere and Horowitz. Kapustin spots a link here: ‘Horowitz was very interested in Tsfasman, who was the first jazz-piano player in the Soviet Union, in the 1940s’. The career of Aleksandr Naumovich Tsfasman, in fact, shows striking parallels with Kapustin’s own. Tsfasman (1906–71) trained as a classical pianist; indeed, he too was a pupil of Blumenfeld. Though Tsfasman also played percussion in symphony orchestras, he started his own jazz orchestra in 1926, and led the All Union Radio Jazz Orchestra from 1939 to 1946. He played the first Soviet performance of the Rhapsody in Blue in the 1934–35 season – and, more to the point in this instance, he composed a good deal of music. There’s another link, too, in that Blumenfeld, Horowitz, Tsfasman, and Kapustin (Barere, too, for that matter) are all not Russians, but Ukrainians, as Kapustin now confirms. ‘I was born in the Ukraine, in a very small town called Gorlovka, and Rubakh was my first serious teacher; that was in Moscow. For four years I studied so hard that I feel I was at the same level, so these four years were critical for me. It was he who took me to Goldenweiser. I played him the Liszt Don Giovanni Fantasy; he liked how I played and asked Rubakh: “Where did you find such a pianist?”’

So at this point Kapustin still saw himself as headed for a career in classical music? ‘I thought I was going to be a virtuoso classical player, but at 20, 21, 22 I understood that jazz was very important. And I didn’t like performing; composition was more interesting.’ He was captivated by jazz, he says, ‘the very first time I heard it. And as soon as I started playing jazz, I understood it was something for me. I understood that I had to combine the two musics – I had that idea from my youth.’ So was he composing jazz from first? ‘‘No. I was thirteen when I composed my first piano sonata, but it was not something I considered serious.’ What kind of style did his music have before the discovery of jazz? ‘An academic style, not contemporary.’ And what made him consider fusing classical structure and jazz idiom? ‘Because I had never heard it. And once I had started, I understood that it was real. When I took it to my friends, they were very excited, and so I understood that I was on the right way. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I joined a jazz combo and we played once a month in a restaurant – it was a restaurant for very rich foreigners. Americans would come to this restaurant, and one day they came and recorded us. Very soon Voice of America broadcast that recording.’ 

Steven Osborne’s notes with his CD recording fill in some of the details. Kapustin formed a quintet while he was still a student, and appeared both with that formation and with Yuri Saulsky’s Central Artists’ Club Big Band. And after his graduation in 1961, he spent eleven years touring the Soviet Union with Oleg Lundström’s Jazz Orchestra (not ‘Leg Lundström,’ as Osborne’s essay has it, though the misprint does give the name an authentic Chicago ring). [YouTube has a clip of the young Kapustin playing with the Lundström orchestra here.] ‘During these eleven years I composed a lot, for orchestra or for piano.’ Kapustin explains how the connection came about. ‘I came to the jazz band with my first concerto for piano and orchestra.’ Was it scored for symphony orchestra? ‘No. For Lundström’s jazz band.’ And they performed it? ‘They asked me for it, but because it was very long they played it only five times. It was too long for their kind of repertoire, and for their audience.’

That mismatch raises the question of whether, indeed, the two worlds can successfully co-exist. As a jazz outsider, I have the impression that one of the defining characteristics of jazz, unlike Kapustin’s through-composed works, is that it is improvised. ‘You are right. I have very few jazz compositions that are really jazz. There is no need to improvise with my music, although it is jazz. But you can make improvisation only by creation; you cannot make an improvisation of a sonata.’ The ability to improvise, of course, used to be part of the musician’s stock-in-trade: composers like Beethoven – ‘a great improviser,’ Kapustin breaks in – were expected to improvise to edify their patrons as a matter of course; now only the more savvy organists maintain that ability. ‘This tradition is gone,’ Kapustin sighs. I tell him I’ve just been reading Stephen Johnson’s Bruckner Remembered, where many earwitnesses testify to Bruckner’s ability to produce intellectually cogent structures from extemporisation. Kapustin’s reaction surprises me. ‘I make improvisations better than Bruckner! But all my improvisation is written, of course, and they became much better; it improved them.’ His comments suggests that he sees himself as a ‘normal’ musician, not a jazz specialist. ‘That’s right. I’m not interested in improvisation – and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? But I’m not interested, because it’s not perfect.’ So in his own music structural considerations are more important than suggesting the spontaneity of jazz? ‘That’s right: With only these variations it’s not interesting.’ So do Kapustin’s piano concertos, then, have relatively orthodox structures? ‘The Third, Fourth, and Fifth are in single movements, and only with string orchestra. And the music has Russian intonations, with something of the nature of Russia in it, a deeper quality. My school is the Russian school, but my compositions were taken from American culture. So you can take anything, but you take it into your own tradition.’

The suggestion that there was a flourishing jazz tradition in the Soviet Union of the 1960s came as a surprise to me – did Kapustin play to a relatively specialised audience? ‘Normal.’ My impression was that, after a fascination with jazz in the late 1920s and early ’30s (as witness Shostakovich’s several flirtations), that the bars then came down firmly and that no ‘serious’ Soviet composer dared touch it. ‘I was really isolated at that time, so I have no idea. But in the early ’50s it was completely prohibited, and there were articles in our magazines that said it was typical capitalistic culture, so we have to throw it away and forget about it. Rachmaninov was prohibited; even writers were prohibited, like Dostoievsky, Yesenin, Akhmatova – all prohibited. Even Shostakovich – he was not prohibited but there were articles saying that it was terrible music. So not only jazz: It was typical for every kind of culture.’ Did Kapustin have his brushes with the authorities? ‘I was entirely free; no problems. My music wasn’t avant garde.’ And what is the state of health of Russian jazz now? ‘Jazz in Russia is at a very high level and it is very popular. There are very good jazz musicians in Russia – there were, and there are now.’ Did the audiences for jazz in the Soviet period come to the concerts for much the same reason that Shostakovich and his friends went to football matches – because it was one of the very few places to let their hair down and forget their troubles? ‘No, they were there to listen to the music; they were intelligent audiences and took their jazz seriously. To forget their troubles they drank vodka!’ What, then, was Kapustin’s relationship with the state? ‘Commissions – you mean, did they pay for works? No, but I would sell them my music and they would pay very well.’ All of a sudden, he lapses into English: ‘I bring my scores; they pay.’

Kapustin’s output, obviously, is anchored around music for his own instrument. ‘Now ten sonatas. And six concertos for piano and orchestra. And now a seventh, a Rhapsody for piano and orchestra.’ All of them written, then, not to commission but for his own satisfaction? ‘All my compositions were written for my own pleasure.’ And was he able to perform the sonatas and get them known? ‘I don’t play by myself. But I play chamber music.’ Have other pianists taken it up, then? ‘Nikolai Petrov has recorded the Second Sonata, and he has done the Fifth Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. And someone else has done something, but I don’t know who.’ Even if he is only now becoming known over here, does the music have something of a reputation in Russia? Kapustin shakes his head: ‘Nobody knows it. My music has been performed in Germany and Japan.’ How come? ‘They had the Petrov recording, and my own recordings, on vinyl – I recorded many of the pieces. I made four vinyl recordings, for Melodiya – before they started perestroika! And now somebody has made a website about my music.’ 

So life for Nikolai Kapustin now offer the pleasing prospect of simply sitting at home and composing? ‘Da.’ And does he still perform publicly? ‘No, I don’t like to play on stage, but I do like to record.’ Ashot Akopian now puts in a word of his own to explain that Kapustin will be recording for A-RAM; if Hyperion likes the result, they may well license the recordings from them. Kapustin plainly doesn’t like talking about himself, but with the acclaim the Hyperion disc is already generating and the possibility of new recordings on the way, he had better start getting used to it: This is not the last interview he will be asked to give. ‘Already here it has started – before London I had no problems! And the Japanese were here yesterday. But to be famous isn’t important. I don’t want to become famous.’