For me, the chamber music concerts at the various City Livery Halls have always been the highlight of the City of London Festival. This year, I chose to visit Merchant Taylors’ Hall in Threadneedle Street (just behind the Bank of England Building) for a joint recital by two recent winners of prestigious international competitions: Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Competition, and Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin, winner of the 2010 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels. Each performed a substantial solo work and in between they performed Franck’s A major violin sonata in the arrangement for cello and piano. In fact, the two had never performed together until the festival paired them for this concert, but there was genuine trust and respect for each other’s musicianship and I hope they will continue to play together.

Narek Hakhnazaryan © Ruth Crafer and Denis Kozhukhin © Marco Borggreve
Narek Hakhnazaryan
© Ruth Crafer and Denis Kozhukhin © Marco Borggreve

Narek Hakhnazaryan opened the concert with Ysaÿe’s unaccompanied Cello Sonata. Although composed in 1924 – the same year as his renowned six sonatas for solo violin – the cello sonata is much less well-known, and rarely performed. Certainly, compared to its violin counterparts this work may be less virtuosic and closer to the Bachian model, especially its tightly woven polyphonic writing. However, it has many beautiful moments, and Hakhnazaryan brought out the lyricism of the piece, while negotiating all the technical challenges (including copious double-stops) with ease. Hakhnazaryan has a flawless technique, and especially his right hand is very free and relaxed and he produces an admirable range of tone, from the dark and passionate to the light and airy.

Next, the cellist was joined by Kozhukhin for Franck’s Violin Sonata, in the arrangement for cello by Jules Delsart. Above all, there was youthful lyricism and passion in this performance – fitting, when one recalls that the work was composed by Franck for the aforementioned Ysaÿe as a wedding present and when Ysaÿe first performed it he would only have been a little older than these musicians. Perhaps because of the shortcomings of the arrangement (there are other arrangements of the work), there wasn’t quite the dramatic tension one expects in the original violin version: nevertheless, the two musicians created a beautiful dialogue and the two instruments were well balanced throughout. It seemed the pianist was mainly setting the tempo, although the cellist would take initiative as required – for example, in the second movement coda which built into an exciting climax. I felt Hakhnazaryan especially excelled in the light-hearted moments, and this was brilliantly demonstrated in the encore – the cello version of Paganini’s Variations on One String on a Theme from “Moses”. He performed it with dazzling virtuosity but without a hint of flashiness – every variation was played with character and it was utterly delightful.

In the second half, Denis Kozhukhin performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which can sometimes sound like a tired warhorse but in his hands it was anything but. Kozhukhin is an unorthodox pianist, but a very thoughtful and sensitive one, and he took the work at a much slower tempo than we are usually used to, choosing to highlight the various pianistic and harmonic details of the piece which are often neglected in favour of virtuosic display and grandeur. He brought out the contrasting colours in each of the “Promenade” movements, played the “Tuileries” and “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” with beautiful precision but at a surprisingly unhurried tempo, and created a dark and haunting atmosphere in the “Catacombs”. If Kozhukhin has a fault, it is that his approach can at times become a little indulgent: for example, when he emphasizes a particular harmonic transition or an interesting bass line, it can seem mannered. However, overall, his approach was always thoughtful and ultimately we were mesmerized by his unconventional interpretation.

His selection of the encores also reflected his thoughtful musical approach: instead of a virtuosic piece, he performed an arrangement of a Bach prelude by the Russian pianist Siloti, followed by a Busoni arrangement of a Bach organ chorale – both with introspection and harmonic sensitivity. Judging from this captivating concert, both musicians are definitely talents to watch.

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