Friday, 2 August 2013

NIKOLAI KAPUSTIN Piano Works / Thomas Ang (Piano) / Review

The Living Room @ The Arts House
Wednesday (31 July 2013)

The music of Nikolai Kapustin has really caught on in the concert halls of the world. In Singapore, Albert Lin and Nicholas Loh did the pioneering proselytising of the Ukrainian jazzman’s solo piano music (in the Singapore International Piano Festival), and now young Thomas Ang, a freshman at London’s Royal Academy of Music, is his chief trumpet-blower. And how he blows!

Last year, Thomas helmed an all-Kapustin chamber concert at The Arts House, and he has returned with a solo recital with no less than six World Premiere performances and three Singapore Premieres. Honestly I had thought pianists around the world would be knocking down Kapustin’s door fighting to play his new works, but I am glad that our very own Singaporean had won the rights to do these world premieres. He had personally written to the composer, and was rewarded with a bunch of new unpublished scores (some just fresh from the oven) which were presented this evening.

Kapustin’s pieces are often performed as encores to round up a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov or whatever, often to show that the pianist was not a square but one who could truly swing. However an entire evening of Kapustin is a tall order for even seasoned audiences. It is paradoxically and emphatically not easy listening, instead one requiring a lot of concentration. A jazz club, with vodka martini in hand, might be a place to sample Kapustin, but 90 minutes of hard-core playing in a concert hall?

Thomas opened with the only piece on the programme I had heard previously, the diminutive Sonatina Op.100 (composed 2000). It is supposed to be one of Kapustin’s easiest pieces (ABRSM Grade Eight no less), but it still needs a loose, free-wheeling demeanour to pull it off. No sweat for the young man, and nine more far more treacherous scores to go!

Some of Kapustin's kontrapuntal forebears:
J.S.Bach, Shostakovich, Hindemith & Bartok.

The Seven Polyphonic Pieces for left hand Op.87 (1998) were tough listening, especially when the intention was the Godowskyan effect of making them sound as if being played by two hands. There were four fugues, two canons and one fughetta, and one is returned to the earlier sound world of Shostakovich, Hindemith and Bartok, with grand-daddy Bach being the original inspiration. All through the knotty counterpoint, Kapustin’s jazzy rhythmic touches were never lost in Thomas’s capable hand and even more complex mind. This was the first of the six World Premieres.

There were two Sonatas performed this evening, No.11 Op.101 (2000) and No.20 Op.144 (2011). The former, nicknamed Twickenham, had nothing to do with rugby but instead named after the neighbourhood where the president of The Kapustin Society resides. In three movements, it bears all the signatures of the Kapustin style: the insouciant blues, dissonances and consonances juggled, shaken and stirred within a decanter, an alarmingly increasing sense of disorientation (except that we know that both composer and pianist are fully in control) and the big gestures. By this time, many in the audience will know when they hear Kapustin next; his style is simply unmistakeable.

Another fun aspect is to try and guess which composer’s styles he incorporates by the clues to be heard underneath the surface of florid jazz. In the two Etude-like Trinkets Op.122 (2004), which someone quoted by Thomas described as “cheesy”, I discern the harmonic subtleties and mystery of Scriabin. The tempo markings of Vivace and Con allegrezza may have been give-aways. In the Six Little Pieces Op.133 (2007), the Schoenbergian title was a red herring. These sound like shavings from a master craftsman’s work table, with Kapustin’s fingerprints all over the sound-bites. This music also suggests to me that the seemingly disparate worlds of jazz and atonalism occupy neighbouring bands within the broad spectrum of musical tonality.  

Scriabin, Schoenberg & Kapustin. Are there common threads among them?

One thing is certain, Kapustin is far more loquacious than either Scriabin or Schoenberg. The latter two just say all that is enough. According to Thomas, the World Premiere of these pieces took place earlier at the Royal Academy this year. He wondered aloud if he could play them better. This kind of impertinence is almost forgivable for someone this young.

The next 5 pieces were World Premieres. Kapustin’s Op.139 and 140 were composed in 2009, and had the pop-like titles Holy Cow and Freeway. No explanations were offered by the composer. The first was meditative, contrasted by the rhythmic energy of the second. Then came Sonata No.20 Op.144 (2011), which is Kapustin’s latest (and hopefully not last) sonata. Like the Twickenham, it is in three movements, and when its 17 minutes were up, that sense of having heard it all before began to creep in. My one criticism is that there are not enough strong themes to sustain all the energy and angst required in learning such a work. Thomas did a fantastic job, simply because he never allowed the formula concocted by the composer to go flat. The fizz was always there because he made sure there was no opportunity for the playing to become blasé or banal. Honestly, if the sonatas from Nos.11 through 20 were played consecutively, I would be hard put to tell them apart. That however never happens with Scriabin, who wrote just 10 sonatas.

The final two works in the programme were there because the composer had asked Thomas to play them! Dialogue Op.148 (2013) was like a Chopinesque nocturne complete with a stirring and stormy middle section, while Etude Courte mais Transcendante Op.149 (2013) was Lisztian because of the technical wizardry required. There was a strong rhythmic left hand propelling the whole work through to its brilliant conclusion.

I do very much look forward to Thomas Ang’s next adventurous excursion into the fascinating world of rare piano repertoire. His virtuosity (now that’s a banal word for you), the simple ability to get across whatever his musical intention by whatever means, is something to behold. Could he become Singapore’s answer to Marc-André Hamelin?  

Singapore's Kapustinauts: Thomas Ang with Nicholas Loh (who gave the Singapore premiere of Kapustin's Second Sonata in 2009). Only Albert Lin is missing in action.

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