Denis Kozhukhin, first-prize winner of the 2010 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, offered a powerhouse recital for Friends of Chamber Music on Tuesday night.
Last season, the young Russian pianist made an impressive South Florida debut playing Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Ft. Lauderdale. He was even better in a solo program. Kozhukhin possesses an impeccable technique. He can play with total accuracy at extreme speeds and tricky passages seem to bring out extra dynamism in his performances. Kozhukhin matches his remarkable technical arsenal with acute musicianship and interpretive depth.
Playing the wonderful-sounding Böesendorfer in the sanctuary of Coral Gables Congregational Church, Kozhukhin opened with a hot-blooded reading of Haydn’s Sonata in D Major. The opening Allegro was invigorating, every note cleanly articulated despite the pianist’s rapid-fire pace and he astutely pointed up Haydn’s minor-key modulations. The Adagio emerged in grave tones but without a trace of heaviness, the pianist shaping the music in long arcs. There was spirit and joy in the Presto finale but also grandeur, the unexpected pauses before the final bars given appropriate weight.
Brahms’ 7 Fantasien, Op. 116, are the work of a mature composer, vignettes from Brahms’ autumnal final years. These pieces are more emotionally volatile and varied in mood and tone than many of Brahms’ earlier, better known scores. They are also a technical minefield for the pianist. Kozhukhin attacked the stormy opening of the initial Capriccio in D minor with gusto, the rolling octaves fast and furious. There was more than a shade of Beethoven in his large-scale approach.
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During a tautly controlled traversal of the Capriccio in G minor, the pianist nearly lifted himself off the piano bench in sheer excitement. Three intermezzi displayed Kozhukhin’s more sensitive side. In two E major pieces, the pianistic color palette was finely transparent, the melodies shaped in a gentle but assertive manner and pianissimos exquisitely achieved.
The slow dance rhythms of the Intermezzo in E minor were perfectly attenuated, Kozhukhin displaying an innate affinity for the gentle pulse of Brahms’ melodies. He captured the tempestuous ambience of the final D minor capriccio, the fierce display of pianistic fireworks definitely from a pianist of the Russian school.
Playing the melody in the left hand against the figures and filigree in the right, Kozhukhin launched the flowing song of Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitide. He brought forth a wide range of dynamics, building the volume and intensity gradually and organically. A score that can sound contrived in less accomplished hands emerged moving and beautiful.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 was the final of the composer’s three “war sonatas.” Kozhukhin potently conveyed the feeling of unease in the tonally ambiguous opening, brought power and thrust to the agitated episodes and drove through the knuckle-busting passages with abandon. The Andante sognando seemed almost romantic, and Kozhukhin’s full-bodied tone and sweeping coloration would not have been out of place in Rachmaninoff. In the final Vivace, Kozhukhin sustained tension through the final fusillade, bringing forth the musical emotion beneath the bombast.
Curtain calls and bravos brought Kozhukhin back for an exquisite reading of Bach’s Prelude in B minor in the transcription by Alexander Siloti, a flow of lyricism replacing the preceding fireworks.
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