Much to Admire in Denis Kozhukhin’s London Recital

United KingdomUnited KingdomHaydn, Franck, Schubert, Hindemith, Brahms: Denis Kozhukhin (Piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 21.9.2013 (RB)

Haydn: Piano Sonata in F HXVI: 23
Franck: Prelude, Chorale and Fugue
Schubert: Four Impromptus D899
Hindemith: Piano Sonata No. 3
Brahms: Seven Fantasien Op 116

This was the Wigmore Hall debut for Denis Kozhukhin who won First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2010, and who has garnered much critical acclaim for his performances of Prokofiev’s piano concertos and sonatas. This was an ambitious and generous recital, covering a significant array of musical styles and genres.
Kozhukhin opened well with Haydn’s sonata in F which was published as one of a set of six sonatas in 1773. In the opening movement, he brought out the wit and playful elements of surprise, and the elaborate decoration was delineated lightly and gracefully. The F minor slow movement almost sounded like a Chopin nocturne – traditionalists will probably baulk at this but I rather liked the romantic interpretation and I think the music lends itself to it. The passagework in the presto finale was crisp and even although Kozhukhin was a little heavy-handed in places.
From the Haydn we moved to the late Romantic chromaticism of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. Kozhukhin created a hypnotic effect with the rippling opening arpeggio figurations while the organ sonorities and chromatic harmonies were nicely characterised. There was excellent control of tone colour in the Chorale and a well calibrated build-up in dynamics. The voicing in the fugue was well controlled and Kozhukhin handled the virtuoso demands very adeptly. However, when it came to the climax of the piece, where the fugue and opening material from the Prelude are superimposed, I felt the thematic strands were not clearly enough differentiated and the control of the textural layering could have been better. There was some unwelcome noise from the audience which may have contributed to this.
After the Franck we heard the early Romanticism of Schubert’s first set of Impromptus. These pieces are not technically difficult to play in one sense but the musical demands are considerable and I felt this repertoire did not entirely suit Kozhukhin. In the opening Impromptu there was nice shaping of the melodic line and control of dynamics but the transformation of the theme as it goes through the various harmonic shifts needs to be magical and this performance was rather more earthbound. The outer sections of the second Impromptu were light and graceful and there was nice shaping of the thematic material but the middle section came across as slightly mannered. The G flat Impromptu needs to be heartfelt and take us on an emotional journey but in this performance was really rather bland and lacking in emotional depth. The feathery figurations in the outer section of the final Impromptu were played well but the drama was missing from the C sharp minor middle section.
The playing improved considerably after the interval with Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata and, indeed, this was the best performance of the evening. It is a work which used to be championed by the late Glenn Gould and it is a good choice for a recital. The opening movement which is marked Ruhig bewegt (‘in gentle motion’) takes the first movement of Beethoven’s Op 101 sonata as its inspiration. The Siciliano lines were artfully drawn by Kozhukhin while the music was allowed to build in an organic and spontaneous way. The second movement scherzo with its obsessive rhythm was played with enormous energy and vigour while the glittering virtuoso passagework of the trio was delivered with aplomb. Kozhukhin demonstrated excellent control of tone production, phrasing and dynamics in the third movement while the central fugato was admirably clear. In the final fugue there was excellent voicing and layering of sound and Kozhukhin did an excellent job in allowing the piece to build in a sonorous way.
The concert concluded with Brahms’s Op 116 capriccios and intermezzos which is the first of four sets of short piano pieces which the composer wrote towards the end of his life. Kozhukhin brought weight and intensity to the first capriccio and did a good job in bringing out the shifting textures while in the second intermezzo he caressed the phrases and brought out the brooding introspection of the piece. I thought he could have made slightly more of the contrasts within the third capriccio but the reverie of the fourth intermezzo was captured beautifully and was really quite lovely. Kokhukhin did a good job in whipping up the final piece to bring the set to its turbulent conclusion. In general terms I thought Kozhukhin could have perhaps explored Brahms’ rich harmonies, inner voices and textures a little more but I thought the set was played well.
There were three encores: a transcription of Gluck’s Melody, a Busoni transcription of a Bach chorale and a short Scriabin etude.

Robert Beattie