Pianist Kozhukhin makes spellbinding Chicago debut at Mandel Hall

Sat Nov 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Denis Kozhukhin performed Friday night at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series. Photo: Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin performed Friday night at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series. Photo: Felix Broede

Denis Kozhukhin’s Chicago debut may not have been generous by the clock, at just over 90 minutes with intermission. But in terms of technical prowess, musical insight and remarkable steel-fingered virtuosity Friday night’s recital at Mandel Hall proved very generous indeed.

The 28-year-old Russian pianist has enjoyed rave advance notices at previous stops on his current U.S. tour. Kozhukhin will return to Chicago in June for his CSO debut performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Fortunately, the audience at the pianist’s recital for University of Chicago Presents got to hear both hands and a remarkable display it was.

One expects technical command from one steeped in the Russian piano tradition and Kozkhukin, indeed, supplied that in spades, not dropping a single note even when playing an astounding blizzard of them at warp speed. Yet with Kozhukhin, the virtuosity is clearly not about personal display but put entirely at the service of the music.

His program, pairing four sonatas of Haydn and Prokofiev, was intelligent and distinctive, underlining structural and even stylistic similarities among the two composers.

Kozhukhin opened with Haydn’s Sonata in D major, Hob.XVI:24. The pianist’s off-center insouciance suits this music well, and his serious stage demeanor belied the wit and ebullience he brought to the opening Allegro’s music-box main theme. He gave a spare and searching account of the somber D-minor Andante, segueing immediately into the Presto finale, which was thrown off with bracing rhythmic vivacity and clarity of articulation.

Kozhukhin acknowledged the applause with a quick, unsmiling bow, sat back down and immediately launched into Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.

The middle of the composer’s three “War Sonatas” was written in the darkest days of the “Great Patriotic War,” and premiered in Moscow by Sviatoslav Richter in January of 1943. Few great composers wrote as much not-so-great music as Prokofiev, but the Seventh Sonata is among his finest achievements–a tense, volatile work in which one can feel the violence, pain and wanton destruction of war.

Kozhukhin tackled the opening Allegro with an aggressive intensity and metallic harshness that powerfully put across the percussive marcato writing. The broken lyricism of the ensuing passage was truly “inquieto” as marked, the Andantino section lean and lyrical yet with a steely control.

The Andante caloroso brought some peace yet Kozhukhin’s pointed touch kept the expression unsettled. He built the music to a wrenching climax and descended again, the tolling of the left-hand chords providing a slight sense of benedictory peace in the coda.

The celebrated closing toccata was attacked with a cumulative intensity and relentless ferocity that was as spellbinding as it was technically faultless. The huge and enthusiastic ovation drew a slight smile from the serious young Russian.

Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Hob.XVI: 32, is one of his darkest works, and Kozhukhin’s firm, rippling passagework gave the drama its due. He underlined the Baroque echoes in the first movement, the bleak, restless modulations seeming to pre-echo the late works of his young friend Mozart and even Beethoven.

The pianist brought an off-center grace to the Minuet. With his violent insistence in the toccata-like repeated quavers of the Presto finale, Kozhukhin drew a parallel with the Prokofiev works, the coda delivered in dazzling fashion.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, the final of the “War Sonatas” is nearly as challenging to interpret as the Seventh, the work’s epic, opening slow movement longer than the two ensuing movements combined.

If the start of the vast Andante dolce felt a bit offhand, Kozhukhin soon showed a sure command of the vast architecture, plumbing the elegiac introspection and the contrasting bursts of drama, building to a powerful sonority and handling the vast canvas with great skill.

In the respite of the almost Schubertian middle movement, Kozhukhin avoided undue sentiment with a taut rendition that underlined the slight solace of the music. The spiky angularities of the finale were seized with imposing power and thrust, accelerating to a thunderous coda, thrilling in its fury and brilliance.

The pianist smiled more easily at the cheers and repeated curtain calls. He offered a single encore with Alexander Siloti’s arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in B minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, played with refined poise and natural eloquence.

Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Angela Hewitt will perform 3 p.m. January 11, 2015 at Mandel Hall.  chicagopresents.uchicago.edu

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