I see from my records that my first mention of Nikolai Kapustin came when Duo Melis gave their San Francisco Performances Guitar Series recital in March of 2011. Unfortunately, I had another commitment that evening; so I had to wait until last week for my first encounter with this remarkable Ukrainian composer. That was when Yuja Wang presented his Opus 41 “Variations for piano” as the centerpiece of her solo recital at Davies Symphony Hall. Kapustin’s approach to variation owed much to a comprehensive knowledge of both the theory and practice of jazz improvisation. In writing about the music I observed that his most prominent points of reference seemed to be George Gershwin and Art Tatum. (The latter, of course, recorded many of his own takes on the former’s songs.)
Kapustin’s approach to composition delighted me for his capacity to turn one of my favorite expressions on its head: He had a gift for creating chamber music that was “jazz by other means.” Wang’s performance left me hungry for more.
Fortunately, last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the first student to perform in the Piano Department Recital presented two of Kapustin’s Opus 40 concert études, the first (“Prelude”) and the sixth (“Pastoral”). These selections were even more heavily infused with Gershwin’s rhetoric than Opus 41 had been, but the thematic material was thoroughly original. Furthermore, because these were études, the music provided an impressive account of the extensive virtuosity in Kapustin’s capacity for invention. For his part, the student glided through all of that virtuosity that one encountered in the casual elegance of Tatum’s stylings of Gershwin.
Deciding that two good études deserve another, this student decided to provide a “spacer” between these two selections with another Gershwin-inspired étude. This was the fourth of a set of études composed by pianist Earl Wild. Wild was one of those performers who could be just as home with Franz Liszt as he was with improvising on Gershwin.
This particular étude allowed him to live in both of those houses at the same time, so to speak. Taking Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” as its point of departure, Wild’s étude drew upon all the imaginative inventiveness that Liszt had brought to his own piano études. One might almost say that Wild had decided to do unto Gershwin what Liszt had done unto Niccolò Paganini. However, in terms of the actual rhetoric, the stylization of Wild’s étude owes much more to Liszt’s “Un sospiro” concert étude. The result is a thick embellishment of Gershwin’s tune from which the melody emerges with a somewhat pointillist clarity, a clarity that was elegantly honored by last night’s student performer.