Rarely, a symphony will perform with a vigor that transforms well-worn works into something entirely new. With brilliance and panache, the Houston Symphony accomplished this feat through a strikingly balanced pairing of Prokofiev’s dark Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Whether it was verve of conductor Jakub Hrůša or the zeal of pianist Denis Kozhukhin, this was the best concert I’ve heard so far this season.

Denis Kozhukhin © Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin
© Felix Broede

Kozhukhin made his Houston Symphony debut with Prokofiev’s staggering Second Piano Concerto. The long cadenza that strikes in the first movement – threatening with its impossible arpeggios and fatiguing emotional toll on a performer who must still get through three movements – was all-consuming. Kozhukhin is not only a genius musician, but also a brilliant performer. To watch him play is to be consumed by the music yourself in a totalizing wave. Shifts from ardent lines to chords ablaze with the disharmony that made this concerto so controversial at the beginning of the century were surprisingly fluid. Kozhukhin, rising from his bench to pull chords off the keyboard, shaking hair loose from a small pony tail, would, in an unbroken turn, become small against the piano, hunching his back as if in line with a poignant decrescendo.

In an act of magnanimity, Kozhukhin gave in to the audience’s standing ovation and calls for an encore. He chose an arrangement of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the opera Orfeo ed Euridice. It should have been a stark change from the explosive concerto, but, profoundly, it felt like a demurely fitting resolution. The theme appears in the opera when Orfeo enters Elysium to search for Euridice – a touching, if not intentional, nod to the dedication of the piano concerto to Max Schmidthof, a friend of Prokofiev who committed suicide. To say it was breathtaking is an understatement.

At intermission, it was hard to imagine anything following Kozhukhin’s performance. Conducting without a score, Hrůša delivered a rendition of Scheherazade that was animated, eager, and passionate. At first glance, Hrůša is a classic conductor from an older school, weaving the baton in clear patterns with a gesture here and there. But Hrůša worked the symphony into lather, winding up the strings, leaping across his podium, and releasing phrases with a bold open palm.

Concertmaster Frank Huang, in the limelight for this work, played as if to project and little more. But in an unusual twist, cello principle Brinton Averil Smith performed with keen apathy and transporting agility. The cello section followed his lead, playing as one instrument – something the violin section has yet to acutely accomplish. 

Even so, the concert was a standout event. I have listened to Scheherazade all my life, and I have performed it several times. Incredibly, this Scheherazade sounded full of innovative discoveries while still embodying the familiar eastern sentiment. 

****1