At first sight, the programme for Denis Kozhukhin’s recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday seemed packed with misnomers. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata wasn’t written about moonlight, Schubert’s Impromptus are anything but off-the-cuff, Grieg’s Lyric pieces are anything but slow-breathed lyrical. Ravel’s La Valse is actually a waltz, but a demonically distorted one – certainly not fare for a Viennese ball. So what would Kozhukhin be serving us?

Denis Kozhukhin © Marco Borggreve
Denis Kozhukhin
© Marco Borggreve

The Piano Sonata no. 14 in C sharp minor, Op.27 no.2, to give the Beethoven its proper name, is such a familiar piece that any performance is judged against countless others. Some pianists opt for crystalline clarity, with every note clear and separate; others go for deliberate blurring, especially in the low-register rumbles. Kozhukhin goes for a hybrid of these: the majority of the notes blurred, but a single melodic line articulated separately, usually in the highest register but sometimes shifting to the mid-register fills. He eschewed the extremes of which the work is capable: rather than a black-and-white performance, we are led to explore the nuances of the shades of grey in between.

It’s an approach not without interest and one that enables one to hear new things in the piece. But I can’t suppress the feeling that it comes at a price: one of the joys of the piece is the excitement generated by Beethoven’s ability to shift between calm and stormy weather, and that was somewhat diminished. Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D935 were rather better served: these are pieces which are rarely fiery and where the exploration of nuance is very rewarding. Kozhukhin was particularly impressive at the far right and end of the keyboard in No. 1 in F minor, where his consistency of phrasing turned the highest notes into a delicious whole; throughout all four pieces, his control of pianissimo also impressed: every note seemed weighted with great care, the mood in the hall almost reverent. In No.3 in B flat major, Schubert’s waves of sound were beautifully rendered, with the last, high variation before the recapitulation played with great delicacy. No. 4 in F minor put me in mind of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody told to go home from the fields and be given a good scrubbing before turning out in polite company, its natural boisterousness tamed by gentility but still sparkling brightly.

Kozhukhin has been a champion of Grieg’s Lyric pieces on record as well as in the concert hall. They suit his style beautifully: since each piece is often just a minute or two long, it takes a pianist with great control of detail to extract the maximum emotion of which the piece is capable in such a short time. Kozhukhin is able to do just that and switch moods in a heartbeat from one piece to the next, taking almost no time to catch his breath – and let the audience catch ours – in between. We were treated to a selection of fourteen pieces drawn from seven of Grieg’s ten volumes, containing a wide variety of moods: anything from extreme sensitivity of touch in the Book 2 Elegie to the delightful shimmering of the butterfly’s wings from Book 3 to the joyous stomping of what’s perhaps the most famous piece played, the Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. My favourite was the babbling of the brook from Book 7, the pianist painting with brushstrokes made of swathes of high register notes.

For most of the closing La Valse, I was left less convinced: there was plenty of rhythmic interest but a certain level of muddiness. But as we proceeded towards the high energy climax, Kozhukhin abandoned restraint for the first time in the evening, giving us the thrill of hearing music which makes you feel like the pianist’s wheels must surely come off at this pace – followed by the delight of the ending being achieved at full pace with everything still firmly attached.

***11