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.