Del Pino and Angelov Have a Ball With Kapustin

Kapustin CD cover

2 + 2 4 KAPUSTIN / KAPUSTIN: Concerto for 2 Pianos & Percussion, Op. 104; Sonata No. 14 for 2 Pianos, Op. 120; Paraphrase on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” Op. 129 / Daniel Del Pino, Ludmil Angelov, pianists; add Neopercussión on Op. 104. 8 Concert Etudes / Daniel del Pino, pianist. Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 120 / Ludmil Angelov, pianist / Non-Profit Music 1011

This is a CD from 2011 that is apparently being reissued, at least according to Naxos of America who put it in their “New Releases” list. So that’s why I’m reviewing it now…that, plus the fact that I just absolutely love Kapustin’s music to death! (Note: You can find a full chapter on the music of this great composer in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, here on this site.)

Probably the best known pieces on this CD are the Eight Concert Etudes, which have been recorded by Sun Hee You (Piano Classics 98), Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion 67433) and Catherine Gordeladze (Naxos 8.572272), all of which I’ve heard except for You’s version. Here they are pounced upon (the best word I can think of for his approach!) by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino with gusto and relish. Some listeners prefer Hamelin, who they think brings out a melody line in his performances whereas del Pino does not, but I did A-B comparisons and surprise, surprise…they’re about the same. On the contrary, it’s Gordeladze whose slightly slower and relaxed performances have greater jazz “swing,” whereas del Pino’s and Hamelin’s have more of a gutsy drive. Both approaches are valid and interesting to hear.

Angelov’s recording of the Piano Sonata No. 14 is a world premiere…this work is so difficult that even the composer admits that he can’t play it! Angelov gobbles it up like Oscar Peterson on steroids. Attempting a technical description of Kapustin’s music is difficult, however, because no matter how much you say about the tonality, rhythmic shifts, inner voices etc., what you are left with is the shell of the music. The really important thing to remember with Kapustin is that, although every note of his music is thorough composed and not improvised (or open to improvisation), every note and phrase has to swing, and this is where many pianists who attempt to play him come to grief. No, not the ones I’ve mentioned, but others you can hear online at YouTube. Unless the performance is by someone who understands the rhythm properly, his music falls flat. And I can’t think of any other contemporary composer whose music I can say that of…not even Sorabji. Why? Because, no matter how non-improvisational his music is, Kapustin is A JAZZ-BASED COMPOSER, and that automatically means jazz feeling if not jazz improvisation.

This is a very important key to keep in mind when listening to anything that Kapustin has written, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Concerto for 2 Pianos & Percussion. Even the liner notes for the CD take extreme pains to point that this isn’t jazz even though it certainly sounds like it! Can you imagine a pianist playing Bali or Indonesian-influenced classical music pointing out to the listener that it’s not Balinese or Indonesian even though it sounds like it? That would be insanity. Yet over and over again (witness Trio Arbós in their most recent album of Kapustin’s music), performers almost feel it imperative to explain or apologize for Kapustin sounding like jazz but not being jazz.

But ah, that concerto. What a brilliant and fantastic work this is, from the opening percussion flourish through to the very last note! Perhaps it seems a bit unkind to say that, harmonically, Kapustin works within a relatively narrow spectrum, and when he does transpose or modulate it is via the use of—here we go again—jazz chord positions rather than classical pivot-points. And again, the distinction is important to make. In the course of this concerto, Kapustin tosses musical ideas back and forth between the two pianists, sometimes combining them in a pseudo-orchestral manner, demanding cross-hands positions and chord extensions to make it almost sound like three pianists instead of two.

Rhythmically, Kapustin is more complex than he seems at first listening. True to his jazz roots, he urges the tempo forward, eating up ever-so-slight microbeats in the process, only to suddenly urge the player to hold back on the beat here and there. This is the heart of jazz tempo and the principal reason why so many classical pianists can’t play this music (or classical listeners assimilate it). Listen to the passage beginning at about 6:09 in the first movement of the concerto and you’ll hear what I mean. Here, del Pino and Angelov are required by the score to pull back on the beat for several measures, push forward for a bit, and then when the tempo relaxes slightly pull back on it again. You absolutely need to play the music this way in order for it to make its proper effect, but who knows how many pianists out there “get it”? I think what surprises me the most is that there seems to be less American pianists playing Kapustin than Europeans and Asians. Possibly because we have so many great jazz pianists here that finding someone to play jazz-informed classical compositions seems less daring? Take that as a hypothesis, anyway. My take on it is that we probably have just as many American classical pianists who are intimidated by the sheer difficulty of this music not to pursue it because it seems to have limited appeal. Why knock yourself out trying to play Kapustin if you can gather a fairly large mob to hear you play Chopin or Brahms?

We have a chance to compare the two pianists’ approach side by side here, del Pino in the Etudes and Angelov in the Sonata No. 14. I would say that, of the two, it is del Pino that grasps the jazz-beat feeling with slightly better intuition. Angelov plays more with what I can best describe as a “George Gershwin ragtime” feel, which is certainly OK in its own way but not quite as loose. This is not to detract from his achievement in playing this fiendishly difficult sonata, and doing it well, but it sounds more like Earl Wild playing Gershwin than George Shearing playing Bach, if you know what I mean. It’s the degree to which the rhythm is loosened up, not just within each bar but in moving from beat to beat. (This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s really not.)

All in all, however, this is a spectacular CD, ending with a bravura performance of Kapustin’s duo-piano workout on Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca. Kapustin managed to write into his “paraphrase” the same kind of swirling, complex and vigorous lines that Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller wrote into the original piece back in 1947. Indeed, if anything Kapustin enhances the original by introducing complex, swirling counter-lines that back up and push, move up and pull the music through even more dissonant harmonies (dig the opening chorus!) and complex figurations than the original. Think of it as an Afro-Cuban-Slavic war dance of sorts, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like!

Adding to the spectacular quality of the performances are equally spectacular sonics. The instruments are recorded closely enough that we can hear everything without sounding harsh—not an easy feat. There is just a hint of natural room reverb here, and that’s all you need to make the listening experience a pleasurable one.

Whether or not you’ve read other reviews of this disc, or have other versions of the 8 Concert Etudes, you really need to have this CD if you’re a Kapustin fan. And if you’re not a Kapustin fan, this disc just might make you one.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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