Denis Kozhukhin at St John’s Smith Square

Haydn
Piano Sonata in D, HobXVI:24
Brahms
Theme and Variations in D minor
Fantasien, Op.116
Haydn
Piano Sonata in B minor, HobXVI:32
Liszt
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – III: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude
Bartók
Out of Doors

Denis Kozhukhin (piano)


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 October, 2015
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Denis KozhukhinPhotograph: Felix BroedeAs part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series – those instalments that would normally grace the being-refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall are relocated to St John’s – Denis Kozhukhin included a couple of Haydn Sonatas and played them with brilliance, sensitivity and wit. His subtle and dynamic approach was a joy. He darkened the mood for the brusque first movement of Hoboken 32, and then enjoyed the capriciousness of the Minuet and its Trio. Earlier, the Adagio of Hoboken 24 had been made limpid, and both Finales found Kozhukhin with the fleetest of fingers while retaining focussed musicianship.

The Brahms pieces were generously unfolded. The Theme and Variations (which started life as the slow movement of the B-flat String Sextet, Opus 18) found Kozhukhin relishing embellishment and chorale, creating bell-like sounds at the still, quiet centre. In a recital that found the pianist moving swiftly from one movement to another and from one work to another, if without suggesting impatience – and he’s not one to milk applause – Kozhukhin then entered into the turbulent world of the first number of the Seven Fantasies while clapping ensued. This set of ‘Capriccios’ and ‘Intermezzos’ found Kozhukhin’s playing pulsating with passion in the opening ‘Capriccio’, and how special was his raptness in IV, delicacy in V and inwardness in VI – the latter is when music goes beyond words. The final ‘Capriccio’ was of music-serving pyrotechnics.

The Liszt was altogether exceptional – luxuriant and evocative, ideally contemplative, ravishing the senses. Kozhukhin strummed the keys to create wonderfully dulcet sonorities and phrasing that breathed, developing the music to unforced ecstasy and creating a revelation, a divine one. If for these 15 minutes the piano had lost any affinity with percussiveness, it was found with a pounding bass vengeance in ‘With Drums and Pipes’ to open Bartók’s restless Out of Doors suite. Kozhukhin may have needed the score – supplied by an iPad – but he was a master of the five movements’ shapes and shifts, whether jagged and aggressive or during the icy dissonance of ‘The Night’s Music’, folksy references breaking through.

Kozhukhin found a kick in the latter stages of ‘The Chase’, enough to bring the church down, and then two encores extended the evening, first with one of those miraculous Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas – slow, almost sacred here – and then a Sonata by Soler, fast and rumbustious. Irrespective of age (late-20s) and nationality (Russian), Denis Kozhukhin is simply one of the best pianists around.

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