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2020/07/06

Nikolai Kapustin 1937–2020

Jazz as a process of maturity

Obituary for the pianist and composer Nikolai Kapustin

The composer and pianist Nikolai Kapustin died on 02 July 2020 in Moscow at the age of 82.

Nikolai Girshevitch Kapustin was born on 22 November 1937 in Nikitovka, a suburb of Horlivka in the Ukraine. His mother introduced him to the piano while he was still a child and he created his first compositions at the age of 13, ultimately producing his first piano sonata. In 1952, Kapustin travelled to Moscow accompanied by Piotr Vinnichenko, his then piano teacher, to take the entrance examination for the Academic Music College. He studied piano in the class of Aurelian Rubach. In 1956, he passed the entrance examination for the Moscow Conservatory where he studied piano with Alexander Goldenweiser and received his diploma in 1961. Kapustin never studied composition as a specific subject, instead preferring to develop his abilities through self-tuition.

Kapustin first experienced jazz during his studies at the Music College and immediately recognised its natural mode of expression. He founded a jazz quintet while still at the Moscow Conservatory and became a member of the big band. After his final examinations, he joined the big band conducted by Oleg Lundstrem, a pupil of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He composed works for this ensemble including his First Piano Concerto op. 2 in which he was able to place his own instrument at the heart of the composition. In 1972, he left the band to join the orchestra “Blue Screen”. After the dissolution of the ensemble in 1977, he was offered a position in the State Symphonic Film Orchestra under the direction of the conductors Georgy Garanyan, Yuri Serebryakov and Konstantin Krimetz. During this period, he composed his Second Piano Concerto op. 16 whose success offered him the opportunity to become a member of the Union of Soviet Composers.

Deep inside, everything was seething

From the 1980s onwards, Kapustin primarily dedicated himself to composition, but still played the piano, chiefly in performances of his own works for radio and television broadcasts. His music at this time was characterised by elements of jazz linked with classical forms such as the sonata and the suite.  The most striking features of his music were its seething nature, virtuosity and its almost physical attraction. The Suite in the Old Style op. 28 dating from 1977 is typical for his style with its interspersed jazz improvisations within a Baroque structure modelled on Bach partitas. Kapustin explained the apparent paradox of through-composed jazz present in his compositional output in his customary calm and modest outward manner:

I was never a jazz musician. I have never attempted to be a genuine jazz pianist, but have to slip into this role for the benefit of my compositions. I am not interested in improvisation – and what would a jazz musician be without improvisation? Any improvisation on my part has naturally been notated and has improved during the process which has allowed it to mature.

His compositional output includes numerous works for piano including a series of 20 piano sonatas and six piano concertos. This is augmented by concertos for solo instruments such as the cello and saxophone, compositions for big band, string and wind orchestras and chamber music for a broad spectrum of instrumental combinations.

From secret tip to worldwide phenomenon

Prior to the year 2000, Kapustin’s music had remained a secret tip among jazz musicians within the former Soviet Union, but since the beginning of the new millennium, his works have become known throughout the world via internet and become exceedingly popular among younger pianists due to their cross-genre character. The much accoladed CDs issued by Steven Osborne (2000) and Marc-André Hamelin (2004) featuring Kapustin’s works have also contributed to the composer’s international reputation. Today, his compositions find increasing popularity in the recitals of renowned pianists and are steadily achieving the status of classics of the 20th and 21st century.

With the death of Nikolai Kapustin, we have lost a fascinating artist and a genuine individual who achieved unexpected international fame in his mature years. We were only privileged to accompany him as his publisher for a brief period and are thankful for the years of creative and genuinely friendly cooperation.