Denis Kozhukhin Impresses in Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’

15/05/2013

  Prokofiev, Denis Kozhukhin (piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 12.5.2013 (CC)

Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No 6 in A, Op. 82
Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat, Op. 83
Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat, Op. 84

Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1986, Denis Kozhukhin took first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2010. He has studied with Dmitri Bashkirov and Kirill Gerstein. His disc of these three sonatas on the Onyx label (which appears to be his sole disc) has garnered high critical praise. Amazingly, the recording is available for free listening on Spotify.

It makes sense to perform these three “War Sonatas” as a triptych, and even more so as part of the current The Rest is Noise Festival. It takes nerve, too, on the part of the pianist. The combined playing time is hardly generous, though, so there was the rather unusual feature of an inserted mini-lecture, by Prokofiev expert David Nice, entitled “’War Sonatas’ or expressions of personal tragedy?” Nice is a superbly articulate and highly interesting speaker, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire was never for one second in doubt as he traced influences and quotations in Prokofiev’s pieces – whilst battling with technology.

Kozhukhin is a terrific player. He seems to combine massive technique, sensitivity and great intellect all within the same body, something mightily rare these days. As these sonatas appear to be his calling card it would be rash to suggest we take our hats off to a genius – I need to hear him in other repertoire – but that he is a musician of stature is beyond doubt. There were no technical obstacles for him in this recital, which is saying something. Pollini included the Seventh Sonata in an early career DG recording that pretty much put him on the map, and indelibly so. Kozhukhin shows a similar steely resolve.

But first, the Sixth Sonata of 1939. Like the Seventh, this sonata contains much violent music, and Kozhukhin honoured the blood-red sentiment without actually breaking his tone. That his reading loses out not one jot to Van Cliburn (whether the RCA recording or the visceral live 1972 account on DVD, VAI 4455) speaks volumes. Kozhukhin’s sense of contrast was great indeed – the more relaxed sections were very ruminative. Yet he can do charm, too, as in the echt-Prokofiev staccato at the beginning of the Allegretto second movement; contrasting profundity made the third movement – Tempo di valzer lentissimo – radiant. His sound was miraculously deep here, his pianissimi properly so and yet with true, projected tone. The Vivace finale was not just fast, but was sinisterly so, an undercurrent far more pronounced here than many other readings – including the Cliburn mentioned above.

The Seventh Sonata (1939-42) began with evidence of the consideration Kozhukhin had given these scores. The opening was fast, yes, but beautifully balanced; the first climax, though, was frenetic, balanced to perfection by the emotional significance he found in the slower sections. The imitation tolling bells of the central Andante caloroso (‘caloroso’ means warmly) left an indelible impression, as did Kozhukhin’s way with the characteristically Prokofievian inflections of that movement’s first theme. The fast finale, marked Precipitato was massively exciting – more so than his recording – a visceral experience that will not easily be forgotten.

Opp. 83 and 84 might share the same key, but they are highly contrasting. The Eighth Sonata, simply stated, needs to be heard more. It is a magnificent work of magnificent stature, and reveals the composer’s imagination at its most inspired. It is a dark, enigmatic piece, it is true – but surely that is all the more reason to honour it. Kozhukhin revealed just how warm his sound can be at the opening of the huge first movement, and his sure grasp of the piece as a whole meant he could guide us through this spectral, disquieting landscape magnificently. One marvelled again at his technique, not only in terms of numbers of notes, but also about how perfectly he weighted the close of the second movement and how he made the finale sparkle blackly – and if you know this piece, you’ll know that’s not a contradiction. There is a tremendous maturity on offer from Kozhukhin – occasionally, there was the impression that one was exploring the darkest reaches of Prokofiev’s psyche, an impression that was simultaneously unsettling and stimulating.

This was a fascinating recital from a pianist of whom I want to hear much more.

Colin Clarke

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