tue 11/08/2020

Denis Kozhukhin, QEH review - lyric mastery and subtle elegance | reviews, news & interviews

Denis Kozhukhin, QEH review - lyric mastery and subtle elegance

Denis Kozhukhin, QEH review - lyric mastery and subtle elegance

Iridescent song in Schubert and Grieg, compelling lines in Beethoven and Ravel

Kozhukhin: always seeing the bigger picture

In Beethoven anniversary year, there will probably be many more "Moonlight"s, meaning the Sonata, than the real thing (though we've been lucky to see the crescent in close conjunction with Venus these past two nights). Not many pianists would dare to place it at the beginning of a programme. Denis Kozhukhin's paradoxically no-nonsense poetry meant that a constant sense of motion culminated in the whirlwind of the finale, a steady move towards implosion mirrored in the piano transcription of Ravel's La Valse at the end of the programme. In between came perfection in the form of pure song from Schubert and Grieg.

Kozhukhin always sees the bigger picture: he's the only pianist I've heard to make total sense of Prokofiev's crazy-collage Fifth Piano Concerto (in a performance with the CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla last year), and intensity was always apparent below and above the famous "Moonlight" arpeggiations, a prelude constantly on the move (but never too much so). It was clear how Schubert's second set of Impromptus amount to an oddball sonata of sorts. The first movement is equal in its three ideas to any of the bigger masterpieces of the final year; how Kozhukhin silvered the second subject and made the exchanges of soprano and bass sing in its sequel. There's never any cosiness here: the famous theme prefacing No. 3's variations had space and dignity, not sweetness.

It was right that lucid order should be restored with the first encore If you had to sum up the articulation, poise and colour of Kozhukhin's more intimate playing, it couldn't be better demonstrated than in the miniscule "Arietta" which began his Grieg sequence; I thought he might end with its later incarnation, but we got the full rollicking of "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen", with highlighting of the sheer genius with which Grieg makes memorable the descending figures at its heart (he was Tchaikovsky's equal in exploiting segments of the scale for melody). In between there were fantastical, evanescent insects above the lake and human trouble in the depths; Grieg's Geminian qualities were never better displayed.

So far, so perfect; it was only at the last hurdle, with La Valse, that the necessary headlong mania fell slightly short. Again, Kozhukhin articulated all the key lines and phrases in the welter of notes beautifully, but we didn't get the ultimate catastophe. Only with the impact of Sunday's stupendous recital from another great pianist born in Nizhny Novgorod, Igor Levit, could one imagine what it might have been. Right, though, that lucid order should be restored with the first encore, Ravel's central minuet movement from the Sonatine, and that the inwardness should be extended with Mendelssohn's second "Venetian Gondola Song". Kozhukhin came to us by way of the Russian orchestral school of pianism, and in hard-hitting works like the Prokofiev war sonatas; but this poised introspection may be his greatest gift of all.

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