It seemed fitting in the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death for the pianist Denis Kozhukhin to devote half of a concert to his music, and appropriate to include George Gershwin in the second half. Debussy was undoubtedly aware of – and influenced by –  American ragtime and jazz, and had an immense influence on Gershwin, and later jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. The ghost of the French composer haunts many of Gershwin’s works with their pungent harmonies, simple melodies and improvisations.

Denis Kozhukhin © Marco Borggreve
Denis Kozhukhin
© Marco Borggreve

Never has Book 1 of Debussy's Préludes seemed so languid, so laid back as in Kozhukhin’s hands: even the up-tempo pieces such as Le Vent dans la plaine and Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest, or the capricious La Danse de Puck had a relaxed suppleness which suggested music played not in a grand concert hall but rather late evening in a Parisian café with a glass of something before one. Danseuses de Delphes set the tone: this first Prelude had an erotic grace, a hint of naughtiness behind the direction Lent et grave (slow and serious). Voiles even more so: was this a boat gently rocking on water, its sails barely ruffled by a warm breeze, or perhaps diaphanous veils wafting in an altogether more sensuous scenario? Kozhukhin kept us guessing, lingering over Debussy’s intangible perfumed harmonies, subtly shading his colourful layers and textures, and highlighting the quirky rhythmic fragments which frequent these miniature jewels. His approach was concentrated and intense – the frigid stillness of Des pas sur la neige was almost exquisitely unbearable – but there was wit and playfulness too, Minstrels prancing cheekily across the keyboard to close the first half with an insouciant flourish.

Still basking in Debussy’s perfume trails, a distinctly informal atmosphere settled over the audience as Kozhukhin returned to the stage for a second half entirely devoted to the piano music of George Gershwin. The scene shifted from Paris to a Manhattan cocktail bar, and Kozhukhin’s easy-going body language and gestures lent a spontaneous air to George Gershwin’s Songbook, a collection of piano miniatures transcribed from his songs. Gershwin loved Debussy’s ability to create music using only a few notes and his richly-hued harmonies and timbres (the Preludes are a fine example of this), and the openings of Gershwin’s songs reflect this: simple melodic fragments and improvisatory passages, supported by unconventional or parallel harmonies which create remarkable atmospheres and intense, micro-moods. And Kozhukhin’s characterful interpretation of these miniature gems reflected back on Debussy’s Préludes, revealing anew their improvisatory qualities and individual personalities.

In fact Gershwin had plans to compose his own set of 24 Preludes following Chopin’s example (which Debussy later took up), which he would call ‘The Melting Pot’ in honour of America’s multicultural society. The triptych of the Three Preludes has outer panels replete with driving Latin rhythms, and a middle work infused with the sultry languor of Summertime from Porgy and Bess.

Kozhukhin’s sensitivity to the shifting moods and diverse rhythms set the scene well for Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s exuberant evocation of the “kaleidoscope of America” and its “unduplicated national pep….blues…..metropolitan madness” (Gershwin). Vibrant musical colours mingled with foot-tapping rhythms to create a concert finale of heady exhilaration.

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