Skip to page content

About this Piece


The Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin may be unfamiliar to American audiences, but his musical style is instantly recognizable as a coming together of American jazz and Russian keyboard virtuosity. Studying with the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz but steeped in the jazz stylings of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Bill Evans, Kaputsin developed a unique compositional voice that reflects and expands on both traditions. The music of Jeanne Demessieux and Naji Hakim also reflects the influence of their teachers and upbringing: Demessieux was a pupil of Marcel Dupré, and, under his tutelage, she became a master of improvisation in the Parisian style, acquiring a prodigious repertoire of some 2,500 memorized works. The music of Hakim, a student of Jean Langlais and successor to Messiaen, is a thoroughly modern and eclectic blending of French and Lebanese idioms. Monica Czausz Berney rounds out her program with more familiar masterpieces by Mendelssohn, Bach, and her adaption of the great Jean Guillou’s transcription of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. 

Imagine you are sitting in a concert hall with your eyes closed, awaiting a performance by the tall, gaunt Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. You expect lush, late-Romantic harmonies with beautiful, lyrical melodies and powerful, athletic pianism. The music begins as anticipated but suddenly veers off into something that sounds like a blending of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Bill Evans. You open your eyes, and sitting at the piano, instead of the skeletal Rachmaninoff, is a short, non-descript grandfatherly Ukrainian. It’s Nikolai Kapustin—a composer and pianist who, despite a long and brilliant career as composer and pianist in Moscow, managed to stay under the West’s radar for more than 60 years, until he gained some notoriety following his death in July 2020. 

Kapustin was born in the Donetsk province of Eastern Ukraine in 1937. He studied with a variety of piano teachers but was perhaps most highly influenced by Avrelian Rubakh who studied with Vladimir Horowitz’s teacher, Felix Blumenfeld. Kapustin was immediately drawn to composition but not in the style sanctioned by the USSR’s Ministry of Culture. Instead, he wrote music that sounds as if it had been simmered in an American jazz stew. Kapustin remembered, “in the ’50s, [jazz] was completely prohibited, and there were articles in our magazines that said it was typical capitalistic culture, so we had to throw it away.” 

Kapustin graduated from the Moscow Music College in 1956, and, by that time, there was something of a “thaw” occurring in Soviet musical life. Jazz was heard in urban clubs and made its way more and more onto the Soviet airwaves. Kapustin continued his experimental amalgamation of classical and jazz idioms, developing a unique compositional “voice.”  

“I was never a jazz musician,” he once said. “I never tried to be a real jazz pianist. I’m not interested in improvisation—and what is a jazz musician without improvisation?” Nevertheless, his music is fresh, engaging, and very jazzy. The Sinfonietta began life as an orchestral work but became popular in an arrangement for piano four-hands. Monica Czausz has arranged the fourth movement, Rondo for organ solo. 

Felix Mendelssohn composed his first works for the organ in Berlin during the early 1820s while still a youthful student of August Wilhelm Bach (no relation). Although he would always be known more as a composer and pianist, he loved playing the organ and rarely passed up the opportunity to try out instruments wherever he found them. In 1831, he was in Switzerland and reported that “happily, an organ is always to be found… they are certainly small and the lower [short] octave… in the keyboard and pedal [are] imperfect or, as I call it, crippled. But still, they are organs and that is enough for me.” The Allegro, Chorale and Fugue was originally intended as part of a set of voluntaries commissioned by the English publisher Charles Coventry, in 1844. It is one of Mendelssohn’s most expansive works for solo organ. The opening Allegro is a virtuosic toccata. The brief Chorale leads into a stately fugue that ends in an understated way in the instrument’s lower register. 

Like most of J.S. Bach’s works for organ, the so-called “Dorian” (not Bach’s title) Toccata and Fugue was composed during the time he was serving as Court Organist to the Duke of Weimar. Two composers—one from the north and one from the south—exerted heavy influence on Bach: Dieterich Buxtehude, whom Bach visited as a young man in 1705, and Antonio Vivaldi, whose music became widely popular throughout Europe following its publication in Amsterdam in 1711. The fiery Toccata, like the Fugue from the more famous BWV 565, uses a typical Baroque violin figure that features a rising and falling melodic figure in alternation with a repeated note, frequently on an open string (a technique that is especially helpful when played on the pedalboard). Although not indicated by the composer, the Toccata invites further imitation of Baroque concerto by utilizing two keyboards in alternation, creating lighter versus heavier textures in the manner of “solo” and “tutti” passages. The Fugue, in four voices, is austere in the manner of the older Baroque form, the ricercar.  

Jeanne Demessieux (1921–1968) and Naji Hakim (b. 1955), born roughly a generation apart, both epitomize the artistry of the multi-faceted Parisian organist, composer, improvisor, and pedagogue. Both presented themselves as exceptionally gifted organists as youngsters and went on to train with some of the twentieth century’s most brilliant teachers. Demmessieux entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 12, and studied with Marcel Dupré for a decade, beginning around 1936. She was the first female organist to sign a major recording contract (with Decca) and eventually recorded the complete works of Bach and Frank. Always performing from memory, she played nearly 1,000 public concerts and had more than 2,500 works in her active repertoire. Many of her compositions for organ are based on familiar plainsong tunes. The Te Deum (1958) presents a bold paraphrase of the tune at the outset that gives way to an extended fantasy and concludes with an exciting toccata in the French style.

Hakim was born in Beirut and moved from piano to organ at a young age, learning technique mostly on his own via several well-known method books of the time. At the age of 20, he moved to Paris in order to complete studies as an engineer and found a composition mentor in the person of Jean Langlais, who encouraged him to enter the Conservatoire, where Hakim eventually was awarded an astounding seven first prizes. He served at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and succeeded Olivier Messiaen at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in 1993. The six short movements that comprise Arabesques (2009) reflect the influence of Langlais as well as Messiaen but always offer Hakim’s trademark blending of late 20th-century idioms with the modes and rhythmic gestures of Middle Eastern folk music. 

When Tchaikovsky’s final symphony was premiered in St. Petersburg in October 1893, several people close to the composer had advice for him regarding a subtitle. It was his brother Modest who suggested Pathétique (infused with passion), a term that Tchaikovsky first embraced but then rejected—to no avail. Nikolai Riimsky-Korsakov suggested Program Symphony but first wanted to know what the “program” was. Tchaikovsky admitted that there was one, but he kept the meaning to himself. While still working on the piece, he told his nephew Bob Davidov that the piece would have a program but that its exact nature would not be disclosed except that it would be “saturated with subjective feelings.” Indeed, the work is full of pathos and deeply felt expression. It ends tragically, anticipating the composer’s untimely death only nine days after its premiere. The Scherzo is by far the lightest movement of the four. It begins in a Mendelssohnian flurry of arpeggios and arabesques before the main tune—a march—emerges. As the work continues, the theme takes on additional martial trappings and what began as a scherzo ends as a triumphant, full-throated march in G major. —Tom Neenan