Pianist Denis Kozhukhin searches for harmony in a wide range of music

Wed Nov 19, 2014 at 1:46 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Denis Kozhukhin will perform a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Tuesday night in Coral Gables. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
Denis Kozhukhin will make his Chicago recital debut Friday night at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series.

Career paths are different for every pianist. Some focus on giving recitals while others eschew chamber music altogether for the spectacle of the concert hall, the sound of an orchestra enveloping their playing of a concerto.

But for pianist Denis Kozhukhin, they are all just different but equally important parts in a single multifaceted career.

“I have to say that the aspects of my playing, the chamber music, solo recital, and concertos with orchestras are at the same level of importance to me,” the Russian pianist said from his home in Berlin. “I am trying to combine them in such a way that there is a higher kind of harmony.”

Since winning First Prize at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels in 2010 at the tender age of 23, Kozhukhin has kept a high profile through an international touring schedule that has taken him to the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall, and, most recently, the Ravinia Festival.

His U.S. tour has featured him in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in New York last February and in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra this past August. In addition, he remains active in performing chamber music, having accompanied musicians such as the Jerusalem Quartet, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, clarinetist Jörg Widmann, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, among others.

Yet some of his biggest accolades of late are due to his work as a recitalist. Kozhukhin will make his Chicago recital debut Friday night at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series.

At 28 years old, the blond-haired, fresh-faced Kozhukhin seems to be at the height of his powers. With his sparkling technique and substantive interpretations of a wide range of music, he stands at the vanguard of Russian pianists of his generation.

Born in Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) into a family of musicians, Kozhukhin absorbed music from an early age, learning piano from his mother and singing in the choir directed by his father. While still a child, he attended the Balakirev School of Music, where he continued his piano studies with Natalia Fish.

At 14 he moved to Madrid, Spain to further his training under Dmitry Bashkirov and Claudio Martinez-Mehner at the Reina Sofía School of Music. He took additional lessons and master classes from such luminary pianists as Fou Ts’ong, Stanislav Yudenitch, Peter Frankl, Boris Berman, Charles Rosen, Andreas Staier, and Kirill Gerstein.

“I always say I was really lucky with teachers,” Kozhukhin said. “Every one of them gave me something. I believe that the seeds that our teacher just planted in your brain, and through your life some of them will just stay there.

“And I’m not only talking about teachers,” he adds.  “I’m also talking about chamber musicians with whom I’ve shared the stage, conductors, even entire orchestras.”

One thing he has picked up from his experiences is the creation of effective and thought-provoking concert programs.  His program Friday night in Hyde Park pairs two sonatas each by Haydn and Prokofiev.

“Obviously when people look at a recital program and see one Haydn sonata and next a Prokofiev sonata, they think ‘Oh, this is odd because they’re so different,’ but I think that’s what makes the recital so special,” Kozhukhin said.

“I like to improvise,” he added. “I like to put together Haydn sonatas, which were written some centuries ago, and Prokofiev sonatas, and to show the public, and myself, how the form was evolving and changing over the years, and  what [the composers] took from it, what they added.”

Kozhukhin’s Chicago recital will feature Haydn sonatas in D major and B minor.

“Haydn, of course, he has very tragic music, but in his keyboard sonatas, I find that his sense of humor is extremely rich and it has many sides,” Kozhukhin said. “Sometimes he’s making jokes of himself, of his own writing. It’s really very joyful music.”

Not so much with Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, however.

“That’s one of the exceptions,” Kozhukhin said. “[Haydn] has a very dramatic first movement and a very dramatic third movement, but then he has a second movement which is a very lovely kind of minuet, and it’s like the smell of something very fresh.”

It’s a freshness that, to Kozhukhin’s mind, complements Prokofiev’s explosive War Sonatas, two of which will be performed Friday night. “They have something in common: their sense of humor,” the pianist said of Haydn and Prokofiev’s styles.

But that humor is often buried beneath the waves of darkness that characterize the “War Sonatas,” the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth of Prokofiev’s sonatas that date from the Second World War.

“In the music itself you can hear that there is something horrible, there is something terrifying. It’s a huge tragedy on a human scale,” Kozhukhin said of the works.

The War Sonatas are something of a specialty for Kozhukhin, so much so that he was tapped to perform them at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Rest is Noise Festival in May 2013. His recording of the works for the Onyx Classical label has also received critical acclaim.

“But Prokofiev’s music, what I love about him is that immediately in his pieces you can hear that it’s his music,” Kozhukhin said. “It’s extraordinary how early he had his own language, his own way of expressing. He always knew he was a power, he was a source of something very pure and something very creative and different, even in his own life.”

“And you know this energy, this belief in the progress and evolution of music, of human thinking and creating in art, it always helps me to move on,” he added.

Kozhukhin also performed music of Brahms this week in Miami, and counts him along with Bach and Prokofiev among the composers he most enjoys returning to.

“I think, as with any great composer, with any great music, you take ten artists and everyone will find something different in those pieces. Prokofiev’s things were written [in the] last century, and Bach or Haydn were written a long time ago and still people perform them. And why? It’s because there are endless possibilities, there are endless things to find and endless things to search for.”

And, ultimately, Kozhukhin’s quest is to uncover what lies beneath the surface of every piece he performs.

“What is so great about all this [is that] you never get to the truth, you never get to the perfection, but you can try,” he said. “I think this is what the life of a musician is about.”

Denis Kozhukhin will perform sonatas by  Haydn and Prokofiev 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu; 773-702-8068. 

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