For stylistic breadth, formidable technical challenges, and audacious invention, the Eight Concert Études
, Op 40 (1984) more than hold their own with the genre’s celebrated benchmarks, from Liszt and Lyapunov to Godowsky’s retooled Chopin and Earl Wild’s Gershwin transformations. No 1 (Allegro assai) tears out from the starting gate with a twelve-bar introduction that quickly transports us to the crowded streets of Rio de Janeiro at the height of Carnival season. Yet for all the music’s giddy groove and melodic uplift, its tempestuous, Chopinseque figurations never relent. Nor do the second Étude’s equally difficult yet gentler double notes that provide a contemporary counterpart to Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op 23 No 9. Its outer sections filter Arensky and Lyapunov through Kapustin’s jazz-tinted eyeglasses, in contrast to pure, unadulterated jazz fantasia characterizing the central episode. The first Étude’s Latino elements come more aggressively to the fore in the Toccatina (No 3), with the young, passionate Scriabin peeking in at fleeting lyrical moments. Repeated notes jump from register to register, suggesting the dapper syncopations of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
. Imagine the long, gorgeously discursive lines Chick Corea spins out in his unaccompanied improvisations against a slow and steady, processional-like left-hand accompaniment (think Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies
, or Bill Evans’ Peace Piece
) alternating between 3/4 and 4/4 time, and you’ve got the essence of Étude No 4. At times the textural tables turn, so to speak, as the filigree descends into the piano’s lower depths, while the billowy left-hand chords, in turn, gain altitude and get to sing out the piece’s big tunes in the process.
In No 5 Kapustin subjects the classic twelve-bar blues form to a playful boogie-woogie treatment, replete with whirling barrelhouse licks, Leonard Bernstein accents that are unpredictable enough to cause an ‘age of anxiety’ on the performer’s part. Happily, Kapustin’s sophisticated reharmonizations never detract from the music’s earthy core. The multi-strain formula employed so effectively in Scott Joplin’s rags and James P Johnson’s stride showpieces finds a modern counterpart in Étude No 6, albeit with twists and turns that wouldn’t have happened without Stephen Sondheim. And just as Sondheim’s Follies pastiches the styles of Broadway’s first golden age (Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Berlin), so Étude No 7’s disarming tunefulness evokes a subsequent generation of American musical theatre giants (Frank Loesser, Cy Coleman, Charles Strouse, Jerry Herman). Behind the music’s easy lope, however, lies some dazzling piano writing, including extensive, exposed passages in thirds. No 8 (Prestissimo) is similar in style and mood to Nos 1 and 3, but more compact.
from notes by Jed Distler © 2004