in: Reviews

January 21, 2016

Kozhukhin Poised in Natural Balance

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Denis Kozhukhin (Felix-Broede photo)

Denis Kozhukhin (Felix-Broede photo)

Haydn, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Franck, and Prokofiev all on one program? After the finish of one of the most absorbing piano recitals I have attended in some time, I no longer wondered. Yet again the Celebrity Series of Boston has introduced to our arts-filled city a performer worth going the distance to hear, the 29-year-old Russian Denis Kozhukhin.

To help describe Wednesday evening at Longy’s Pickman Hall, I choose the overused word sustainability, “exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of an area.” Let natural resources be composers and their compositions.

It is one thing to speak of the pianist’s physical agility and endurance, which are great. Kozhukhin’s appearance, however, proved that ecological balance between performer and composer is not dead. Did I not overhear at intermission a listener mention structure (some might say form) as a feature of the pianist’s reach? I could only agree.

There is more. Kozhukhin opened with Haydn’s Sonata in D major Hob.XVI:24 (not 37 as listed in the program). He would begin the second half with another, B minor Hob. XVI:32. Such symmetry provided not only balance but a stylistic contrast to the other works. A lighter tactic could have better integrated the two sonatas with those works, at the same time giving definition to Haydn’s essence. Farfetched was the Finale: Presto of the B minor that Kozhukhin took prestissimo, considerably reducing the dramatic effects of the pauses and changes of direction.

With Brahms’s Opus 116, total absorption prevailed. The Capriccios surged through intellectualism yoking emotionalism. The Intermezzos wept, found comforting angels, turned to delicate sweetness or to moments of exuberance. This Brahms set met at a spiritual and sensual crossing.

The 20 Variations on a Theme of Corelli forged by Rachmaninoff was another, if not less inward-looking, grand oeuvre for a pianist possessing quicksilver adjustments both technical and musical. Mood shifting rode continuously just above Rachmaninoff’s richly venturesome harmonic underpinning, which Kozhukhin amply, affectionately elucidated.

Kozhukhin breathed a larger-than-life iteration of the huge, the cyclical Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, wherein César Franck’s plan was to unite various movements by a single theme. Here the gifted Russian, with demeanor at once serious and warm and with a long strand from his ponytail repeatedly falling in his face, produced a structurally solid whole. The performance stood as a monument—totally engrossing from graceful start to concluding climatic flourishes. His final ending octave spoke kindness rather than pandering to the all too predictably emphatic.

Demanding for both pianist and auditors alike, especially the end of the final movement, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 delivered a knockout. The spot-on tempo of the Allegro inquieto, the memorable swing-pianolike 10ths and entrancing lyricism of the Andante caloroso, and, finally, the ultimate blows in the Precipitato, supercharged as if from ancestral time, clearly reached the soldout crowd. Rather astoundingly, after two hours of playing a big program with only a 15-minute break, Kozhukhin was able to bring us to our feet with an incomparable, blazing close.

To my disappointment, this apparently was not enough, nonstop celebratory sounds from the audience begging for an encore, in which Denis Kozhukhin acquiesced. Though Soler’s Sonata 83 and Scarlatti’s Sonata in C# minor provided much delight, they also blurred and diminished a rare moment in my listening history.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass-Boston, was recipient of both a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net.

3 Comments

  1. This was a remarkable and memorable recital, which the review conveys with authority and no small poetry.

    I for one found the Franck simply astonishing. It is a piece that Boston audiences have heard a good deal lately, including worthy readings by Inon Barnaton and Benjamin Grosvenor (twice), but I wonder if any of us have ever encountered a more lucid, spellbinding account anywhere. To my ears, even the most esteemed recordings of past masters like Moravec, Simon, Malcuzynski and Rubinstein pale beside Kozhukhin’s visionary performance. And the reviewer has it exactly right: the final octave was a blessing on us all.

    As for the Prokofiev, even more jaw-dropping magnificence! What impressed even more than the utter security of the fingers was the expansive, subtle mind at work behind them, rendering this familiar piece completely fresh, disconcerting, poignant, primal.

    It is here, however, that I respectfully part ways with the astute reporter. Although I too was left at the end of the program with a sense of perfect conclusion, I was surprised to find the Soler a magical and most welcome denouement, capped by the tender Scarlatti. Another pair of blessings…

    By the way, Kozhukhin’s highly regarded recordings of Haydn and Prokofiev are speeding toward my doorstep as I write. Looking forward to much more from this great artist!

    Comment by nimitta — January 22, 2016 at 9:12 am

  2. Thanks, as usual a marvelous too brief review on an evening of superb piano revelations.
    Surprisingly I found the Franck in the second half to sound romantically Russian.
    What a treat Harriet and David have given us.

    Comment by dick land — January 24, 2016 at 10:30 pm

  3. In Particular I wanted to agree with Professor Patterson – there are many times when a encore actually detracts from an event whose conclusion has been already reached.

    Comment by dick land — January 24, 2016 at 10:35 pm

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