A Superb Recital by Denis Kozhukhin

13/09/2016

Handel, Brahms, Weber, Bartók, Albéniz:  Denis Kozhukhin (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 11.9.2016. (RB)

Handel – Suite No. 7 in G minor HWV432
Brahms – Three Intermezzi Op.117
Weber – Piano Sonata No. 3 in D minor Op.49
Bartók Szabadban (Out of Doors Suite)
Albéniz – Three pieces from Iberia

Denis Kozhukhin is a former winner of the Queen Elizabeth Competition and he combines a prodigious technique with penetrating musical insights about the works he is playing.  For this recital he presented a wide, varied and technically demanding programme stretching from the 18th to the 20th Century.

Handel’s keyboard suites are rarely performed on the piano nowadays.  Richter and Gavrilov did perform these works and they left a joint recording of the complete suites.  However, the new generation of pianists do not seem to be drawn to this music and one hears it much more often on the harpsichord.  The keyboard music of Bach, Scarlatti, Couperin and Rameau are all performed on the piano so why not Handel?  Denis Kozhukhin certainly made a persuasive case for performing the G minor Suite on the piano.  The overture had an ornate grandeur and a wonderful depth of sound, the dotted notes were played with vibrancy and buoyancy while the ornaments were stylish and showed an appreciation of Baroque conventions.  The embellishments in the ensuing Andante were exquisitely executed and seamlessly integrated into the musical narrative with both hands perfectly mirroring each other.  All of the dance movements were well characterised and I particularly enjoyed the Sarabande (more familiar to the general public through an orchestral version which featured in an advert for Levi’s jeans) where Kozhukhin gave us beautifully poised playing and elegant shaping of the line.  The final Passacaille with its increasingly elaborate variations is the crown jewel of the work and Kozhukhin delivered a blistering account, allowing the work to build in dynamism and intensity.

From Handel we moved to Brahms’ Op.117 Intermezzos which the composer wrote in the summer of 1892.  Kozhukhin brought a simplicity and directness to the E flat Intermezzo and he made expressive use of rubato to explore the harmonic shifts and multi-layered textures of the work.  The wonderful B Flat minor Intermezzo received a highly poetic and nuanced performance with Kozhukin bringing rich colours and sonorities to the central section whilst subtly revealing the composer’s inner voices.  The opening of the final C Sharp minor Intermezzo had weight and intensity while the central section had a gorgeous luminous glow.  This was very mature, thoughtful and musical playing which reminded me a little of Alexeev’s performances of Brahms.

The first half concluded with another composer whose piano works are rarely performed.  Arrau, Cortot, Gilels and Richter all performed the piano sonatas of Weber but for some inexplicable reason they seem to have dropped out of concert programmes nowadays.  The D minor Sonata was written in a blaze of white heat in just twenty days in 1816 (the same year in which Beethoven composed his A major Sonata Op.101).  Weber was a superb pianist so the piano writing is brilliant and the lyrical melodies have an operatic quality.  The opening movement is marked Allegro feroce and Kozhukin certainly brought a fiery ardour and moments of high drama to the opening section.  The lyrical second subject was enchanting with Kozhukhin evincing sweetness and elements of mercurial fancy foreshadowing Schumann (I preferred Kozhukin’s tempo to the slower tempo adopted by Richter).  In the slow movement Kozhukhin presented us with a series of shifting tableaux, using an orchestral palette of textures and colours.  I wondered if the contrasting elements could have been linked together more effectively to create a more cohesive narrative.  The ebullient finale was played with energy and brilliance with Kozhukhin showing us some dazzling finger-work.  I loved the treatment of the second subject with its operatic left hand melody which was played with enormous swagger.  This was exceptional playing from Kozhukhin and he certainly convinced me that there is a strong case for performing this work more often.

In the second half of the recital we moved to the 20th Century starting with Bartók’s Out of Doors Suite.  The work was written in 1926 after the composer’s marriage to his second wife and the birth of his son and it was described by Bartók as ‘five fairly difficult piano pieces’ – something of an understatement!  Kozhukhin conjured dark onorities from the bottom of the keyboard in the opening movement entitled, With drums and pipes and Bartók’s savage rhythms were played with ferocity but without breaking the tone.  There was a marked contrast in the ensuing Barcarolla where Kozhukhun used a soft touch and quiet dynamics to outline the contours of the composer’s shifting lines against the melancholy boat song.  The night’s music was a stunning piece of playing:  the audience sat in rapt concentration as Kozhukhin evoked an assortment of animal and insect noises against the blackest of nights.  The chase coursed with rhythmic energy and an air of malice pervaded the movement before Kozhukhin drove the music to its visceral conclusion.

The recital concluded with three highly virtuosic pieces from Albéniz’s Iberia.  Fête-Dieu à Séville depicts the Corpus Christe festival in Seville and features street bands, church bells and religious chants.  Kozhukhin’s virtuoso credentials were clearly on display and some of the passage-work was absolutely dazzling as we listened to the religious procession coming into view against the chiming of bells and flamenco guitars.  Kozhukhin brought us an array of shifting colours in the central section as the music modulated through different keys.  Triana depicts the gypsy quarter in Seville and started off in a light almost whimsical way.  The technical demands of the middle section did not pose any difficulties for this performer as perfectly configured figurations whirled round the well-shaped central melody.  Eritaña depicts the festivities at an inn on the outskirts of Seville and the cascading and clapping of a communal dance.  The score contains thickets of notes and dense textures but you would never have guessed that with this performance which was delivered with nonchalant gusto as the dance gathered pace and momentum.  I slightly missed the sparkle and flair that de Larrocha famously brought to this piece but it was a superb performance nonetheless and a great way to end the recital.

Kozhukhin performed one of Brahms’ Intermezzos from Op.116 as an encore.  This was a superb recital from Kozhukin and I was delighted to see him championing these lesser known works by Handel and Weber.

Robert Beattie     

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