Kozhukhin offers a piano feast in subjective style

January 21, 2016 at 2:15 pm

By David Wright

Denis Kozhukhin performed a recital Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series.

Denis Kozhukhin performed a recital Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series.

For fans of the Russian school of piano playing, with its broad tonal palette and rich vein of fantasy, the place to be on Wednesday night was Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music, where pianist Denis Kozhukhin gave one of those soup-to-nuts, Baroque-to-Modern programs favored by his countrymen from Anton Rubinstein to Vladimir Horowitz.

Plenty of Russian was heard in the aisles as a home crowd gathered to hear the much-decorated but still-young artist, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.

Kozhukhin’s highly original interpretations embraced substantial works by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Franck, and Prokofiev, and he opened each half of his program with a Haydn sonata for good measure.  Encores by Soler and Scarlatti added the Baroque component.

Although on paper this program looked like an all-nighter, the pianist moved things right along and had his well-fed listeners back on Garden Street in just a little over two hours.

Kozhukhin’s way of playing Haydn’s Sonata in D major, Hob. XVI:24, seemingly tossed off and over-inflected at the same time, took some getting used to, as did his somewhat hard and brittle piano sound.  But one eventually gathered that the pianist was emphasizing the volatility of Haydn’s thoughts over sonata-form logic, and trying to make the nine-foot Steinway imitate the sharp attack and quick decay of the fortepianos that Haydn wrote for.  (Apparently due to a mixup, another D major sonata by Haydn, Hob XVI: 37, was listed in the program.)

Sharp attack was quickly forgotten in Kozhukhin’s full-toned rendering of Brahms’s Fantasien, Op. 116.  It’s customary to write off the title of this opus as a case of a composer stuck for what to call seven rather abstract character pieces, and picking the most noncommittal handle he could think of. This pianist, however, took the title quite literally, and made each of these pieces, fast and slow alike, seem to emerge from a cloud of fantasy.

Kozhukhin astutely used key connections to hold his heterogeneous program together, following Haydn’s lively D major finale with the stormy D minor Capriccio that opened the Brahms set, and later connecting Haydn’s B minor to the first bars of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, in the same key.

That first Capriccio and the two others in the set roared and raged quite satisfyingly without forcing or banging, and the pianist rendered the four introspective Intermezzos with singing tone, deeply layered counterpoint, and a sense of the long line, even amid the hiccuping two-note phrases of the enigmatic Op. 116, No. 5 in E minor.

If the persistent tonal nimbus and rubato of this performance made one wish now and then for a cold splash of German objectivity, there was no doubting the integrity and profound beauty of Kozhukhin’s interpretations.

Beauty of another kind characterized Rachmaninoff’s late work, the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42—not Brahmsian introspection, or even this composer’s signature soaring melodies, but a kind of vigorous, do-not-go-gentle attitude toward the end of life, symbolized here by a chromatic “dying fall” in the theme’s harmony.  (The key connection was made again between the end of the Brahms and this piece, D minor to D minor.)

While Kozhukhin was not shy about singing and inflecting the simple theme—not actually by Corelli, but a tune of long lineage called “La Folia”—his performance of the variations emphasized the acerbic wit and explosive virtuosity that characterize Rachmaninoff’s later works, with only occasional (but quite effective) ventures into more sensuous territory.

This work, and particularly this performance of it, served to remind one of how many different shades of scherzando Rachmaninoff had at his command, from airy to ferocious, flirtatious to sarcastic.

Haydn’s music could have quite a bite to it as well, as in the abrupt opening bars of the Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI:32.  In Kozhukhin’s interpretation, one could hear Haydn seeming to look back to Scarlatti’s Spanish fire or forward to Beethoven’s “Pathétique” fury.  A somewhat swoony minuet and a short, crisp Presto finale completed this characterful performance.

For most of his life, César Franck was better known as an organist than as a composer, and an organ sensibility infuses his piano piece Prelude, Chorale and Fugue with a rich texture of layered voices, splendidly realized in Wednesday’s performance.

Kozhukhin’s performance was further enhanced by luminous singing tone amid the bubbling figurations of the Prelude, sensitivity to color changes in the work’s late-Romantic chromatic harmonies, and expressive rubato on a solid rhythmic foundation.  (The pianist even employed rubato within the Chorale’s big rolled chords.)

In Kozhukhin’s hands, the Chorale’s variations seemed to grow organically, the introduction to the Fugue generated real suspense, and the Fugue itself demonstrated that (pace Rachmaninoff) a chromatically descending theme can lead to triumph, not pessimism.

All this, and Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata too?  The notorious finger-buster seemed to hold few terrors for Kozhukhin, but that alone would not distinguish him from a hundred other virtuosi out there. His performance also boasted vivid contrast between the first movement’s main themes, an arrogant march and a vaporous meditation; glowing singing tone in the second movement’s interrupted love song; and artful pulling back to heighten the breathlessness of the Precipitato (“headlong”) finale.

Enthusiastic applause brought two extras, one-movement sonatas by Soler and Scarlatti, which were performed in a somewhat exaggerated “encore” style, the fast Soler as wild and crazy as possible, the slow Scarlatti a free-floating, melancholy dream. The audience, apparently satiated from the evening’s feast, didn’t ask for more.

The next classical-music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Orchestre National de France, Daniele Gatti conducting, with pianist Alexandre Tharaud, 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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