Intelligently programmed and performed Berlin recital by Denis Kozhukhin

GermanyGermany Widmann, Schubert, Ligeti, Liszt: Denis Kozhukhin (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 16.5.2024. (MB)

Denis Kozhukhin © Marco Borggreve

Widmann – Idyll and Abgrund (Six Schubert Reminiscences for piano)
Schubert – Piano Sonata in G major, D 894
Ligeti – Études, No.13: ‘L’Escalier du diable’
Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178

With this intelligently programmed and performed recital, Denis Kozhukhin reminded us what an interesting musician he is. Both halves presented a major piano sonata – two of the most celebrated and, in different ways, difficult in the repertoire – preceded by a more recent work either, in the first case, paying explicit reference to the earlier composer or, in the latter, holding something diabolically transcendental in common.

Jörg Widmann’s 2009 Idyll and Abgrund, subtitled Six Schubert Reminiscences for piano, opened the programme. If its first ‘reminiscence’ certainly had melodic roots in Schubert, its harmonic world initially seemed closer to late Liszt, before heading in another direction altogether, heavy dissonant interventions in the treble sounding oddly like Schnittke. That composer also came to mind in the mode of expression of the second, though Schubert and indeed Brahms, as well as a more general (typically for the composer) relationship to German musical Romanticism were present. There were here and throughout so many ghosts that I cannot remember them all and am not sure it would be helpful to list them even if I could. A charming waltz began, only to be partially obscured, yet soon returned to go a little haywire, pianist’s whistle and all. Kozhukhin offered a fine lilt, always idiomatic without sentimentality. There were starker passages. And surely that was Schubert’s final piano sonata I heard in the last movement, just before the close. But so what? Reference, allusion, or kinship were apparent, ‘meaning’ more allusive – and doubtless rightly so.

Schubert’s own G major Sonata, D 894, followed. The first movement, Molto moderato e cantabile, was taken at no Richter tempo; how – why – would one imitate the inimitable? But it certainly took its lead from Schubert’s marking, as indeed did all four movements, in character as well as mere speed. A sense of sleepwalking, as in Thomas May’s programme note quotation from Alfred Brendel, was apparent, Schubert striding ‘across harmonic abysses as though by compulsion, and we cannot help remembering that sleepwalkers never lose their step’. Kozhukhin’s command of line certainly suggested this. One might, at any one moment, have been forgiven for thinking Schubert was not really in the business of development, but he was, through a stasis that was only apparent yet no less ‘felt’ for that. And he proved just as adept as summoning ghosts, albeit without any compulsion to name them. Form grew out of what we heard rather than being imposed upon it; that said, there was no doubting the moment of tonal return, nor the transformed nature of material thereafter. What a pity, then, that someone’s telephone went off at the first movement’s close, visibly disconcerting pianist and audience alike. The Andante received a similarly ‘interior’ reading, passages turning outwards where called for and not without violence. It made sense, again as if from deep sleep. This music can certainly be understood dialectically, yet it was less clear than with Beethoven that that would be the point. It came from a damaged world, a damaged psyche, Adorno’s Minima moralia coming to my mind, but showed great strength from within. The minuet asked and responded, the difference between question and response meaning all — both to pianist and composer. Its trio offered a vision of something beyond, perhaps heavenly, whilst unable or unwilling to let go of remaining, unbridgeable distance, as if a Bach musette found itself in the world of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, neither party knowing quite what to do. The final movement brought us back to earth, perhaps, whilst remembering what had just passed (and in truth, we had never really left). This was the wayward progress of music that wishes to approach Mozart, yet actually ends up further away. Might Kozhukhin have confronted the abyss more starkly? Perhaps, but his long, unbroken line told its own story.

The thirteenth and longest of Ligeti’s Etudes, ‘L’Escalier du diable’, offered a strong pictorial sense of its titular inspiration without being bound by it, nor indeed by anything else other than a precision the composer would surely have admired. The craziness of its technical demands and their fulfilment were all part of the challenge — and the fun. Dynamic levels were as rock-solid as rhythm, a big, post-Romantic sound as present where required as interior unwinding. It was probably just my imagination, but I could have sworn a chord emerged, perfectly in keeping, as if from the world of Messiaen. In any case, the final resonance was surely one to rival Stockhausen.

It made for an ideal curtain raiser to the Liszt B minor Sonata, which began with an almost modest precision that was actually more a case of knowing where the music must lead. That precision remained, as did tautness of conception, again with fine command of line to recall Schubert. There was no haze here, though, in a performance that was bright even when dark, and ever immediate. If there were sleepwalking here, it was of a more nightmarish quality. Kozhukhin did not shy away from rhetoric as such, the first statement of the second subject, for instance, highly declamatory, but form and, even on occasion, a certain formalism were more to the fore. Perhaps the performance, then, sprang from Ligeti in that sense too. Again, it was certainly not that Kozkuhkin could not spin a compelling, even spell-binding cantabile line; he could and did. Integration nonetheless always seemed his ultimate concern. Clarity of texture and purpose was admirable, even if I occasionally missed a little Romantic mystery. (Was that just me trying to have it all? Probably.) There were surprises, though, in the sense that new points of departure, the fugato a case in point, truly sounded as such, even when one ‘knew’. The true recapitulation sounded, again, with all the inevitability one could wish for. It was, perhaps, a more modernistic story than often, but that is inherent to Liszt. And on the very few occasions when the music threatened to escape even the most iron self-control, that is surely part of Liszt and Lisztian performance too. This sonata will never sound ‘perfect’; it is not Mozart and is not trying to be. It was something different from that and all the better for it.

A moan: must audience members really tell each other loudly what an encore is when a musician begins to play it, or just as bad, give a stage-sigh of satisfaction? Well done: you have recognised Robert Schumann’s Träumerei, one of the most celebrated and likely encores in the piano literature. Fortunately, Kozhukhin gave an honest account, beautifully voiced. To be fair, no one made such noises for the first encore, perhaps because – like me – they did not know what it was. Hymnal and, if I remember correctly, slightly modal, it had melodic and harmonic characteristics I might have guessed to be Russian. I wondered whether it might have ‘meant’ something beyond its notes; at any rate, Kozhukhin clearly believed in and winningly communicated those notes.

Mark Berry

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