This was Nikolay Khozyainov’s first return visit to Dublin after having deservedly won first prize in the Dublin International Piano Competition last year. I particularly recall a brilliant and compelling interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in the final. Consequently, expectations were very high for this evening’s performance. At age 21, the young Russian seems to have swept all before him, from getting second prize in the Sydney Piano Competition last year to giving his Carnegie Hall debut next week. Hailing from Blagoveshchensk, a town that once used to be part of Imperial China but is now a border town in the Far East of Russia, Khozyainov, like most Russian pianists of note, studied at the Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory, with renowned pianist Mikhail Voskrensky.

This recital was built on a well-balanced programme, both interpretatively and technically challenging, of the sort that is quite popular at international piano competitions. If one were to make a comparison to the food pyramid, there were sufficient quantities of the important proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals (Beethoven, Prokofiev, Chopin) to permit the sparing use of the enjoyable fatty and sugary substances (in the form of a Liszt operatic transcription). This last piece left the audience clamouring for more. Khozyainov is an intelligent pianist, and while possessing a formidable technique which allows him to surmount with ease any technical challenge that comes his way, he has a genuine interest in exploring the tonal colouring with a sensitivity that allows the music to develop organically. He has declared his interest in a conducting career, something that shows in his holistic conception of a piece.

Such an approach really bore fruit in his interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 31, Op. 110. He spun an enchanting web of sound with pearly semiquavers and finely graded pianissimos in the opening Moderato. Yet, there was a detachment and restraint that allowed the music to speak for itself in all its glorious simplicity. The Allegro molto second movement was attacked with gusto and laced with Beethovenian humour in its offbeat accents and dialogue between the hands. Khozyainov luxuriated in the stillness of the opening part of the third movement, while in the fugue, the three voices were wonderfully delineated and meticulously shaped within the complex web of sound.

The warm, lyrical sound in Beethoven was replaced by a harsh, explosive attack as demanded by Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 7. The frenetic opening, with its sharp rhythms and angular, discordant harmonies, contrasted well with the more lyrical second subject which Khozyainov imbued with a wistfulness and uncertainty reflective of the sorrows of World War II, during which period it was written. This historical background informs the second movement too, where the overtly ironic romantic opening melody, redolent of another era, later struggles against the clashing dissonances. Khozyainov’s tone was warm and romantic in the true Russian school of pianism when this was appropriate, without ever straying into the realms of sentimentality. He hurtled into the final Precipitato pulsating with nervous energy and pounding the fiendish difficulties of the final two pages. One felt piano, pianist and audience all needed the interval to recuperate after such exhilaration.

Chopin’s Berceuse was just the antidote to the barbarity of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata and just the thing to showcase how exquisite his pianissimo passagework is. The delicate melody was sensitively projected above the gentle rocking motion of the left hand. There was a great sense of serenity here: he is utterly uninterested in showing off, a quality that is rarely heard at piano competitions and which marks Khozyainov out as an already very distinguished pianist.

The Sonata in B minor, one of Liszt’s greatest works, had all the ingredients necessary for a successful rendition: fine tonal gradations in the quieter sections, fleeting mercurial passagework in the fugal section, and exciting, fast and thundering octaves pretty much everywhere else. If I had a reservation, it would be that some of the virtuosic parts were a little too rapid and some of the harmonic and contrapuntal complexities were subsumed into the vortex of passionate octaves. This was not a problem in Liszt’s operatic transcription Fantasy on Themes from Mozart arranged by Busoni, a charming and inventive composition based on the well known arias from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. This is a dazzling showpiece, where the delightful “Voi che sapete” and “Non più andrai” received a cheeky transformation, with crossing of hands, treacherous octave leaps, trills, and chromatic scales in thirds. Khozyainov managed such technical wizardry with aplomb and received a richly deserved standing ovation.