Monday lunchtime at London's Wigmore Hall: an enjoyable and stimulating pre-concert lunch with a friend combined with a high-calibre performance by a young artist with a formidable reputation makes for a near-perfect start to the week. The artist in question was Denis Kozhukhin, a young Russian pianist who came to international notice after winning the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2010. I first heard him in concert with the Capuçon brothers in music by Shostakovich and Messiaen's extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time. This was my first taste of him as a soloist and he stamped his authority and musicality on the concert from the opening notes of the Haydn Sonata to the final fleeting phrase of his second encore.
Brahms' Theme and Variations in D minor were originally scored for strings, though listeners could be forgiven for thinking that the work was intended for the organ, with its rich textures, rolling arpeggiated chords and assertive grandeur. The work also looks back to Haydn's Baroque antecedents, most notably Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin, in its structure and stylistic elements. Kozhukhin brought a full, rounded tone to the work, his fortes and fortissimos muscular and colourful rather than simply loud. The work unfolded expansively, revealing its chorale-like elements The fourth variation, in D major, recalled in the lyricism of Haydn's slow movement and also looked forward to the Liszt which followed, with its delicate figurations.
In the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude we see another side of Liszt's personality, a complete volte face from the showy virtuosity of, for example, the Transcendental Etudes. Here the mood is reflective, in this work which pays tribute to the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine. Kozhukhin made it more than contemplative, allowing us to bask in sweet sonorities and ravishingly spacious phrases, creating a sense of relaxed ecstasy. Throughout, his delicacy of touch and dynamic shadings made one believe the piano had lost its hammers as sounds shimmered and fluttered around the hall.
His Bartók was equally exceptional, and yet a complete contrast to his Liszt. Playing from an iPad, with a nifty Bluetooth page-turning device at his left foot, Kozhukhin opened Out of Doors with deep pounding in the bass and jagged percussiveness. The restlessness of Bartók's writing was relieved during “The Night's Music”, the fourth movement, which recalled both the pensive atmosphere of the Liszt in Kozhukhin's subtlety of touch and the warblings and scurryings of nocturnal creatures through his colourful, nuanced touch and judicious pedalling. The final movement, “The Chase”, had a raucous kick and vibrant impetuosity, underlined by a relentless left-hand ostinato.
Kozhukhin offered two encores, the first one of Scarlatti's miniature miracles, controlled and delicately hued, the other Soler, strumming with life, further demonstrating Kozhukhin's ability to segue apparently effortlessly between myriad styles and genres of music.
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