It happened tonight. A performance of a work I’ve long consigned to the second rate category bowled me over. So compelling was the interpretation I wondered how I hadn’t spotted the piece’s manifest brilliance before. Such was Denis Kozhukhin’s masterly performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor.

Denis Kozhukhin © Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin
© Felix Broede

The concert opened with Brian Boydell’s In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi, Op.30, an elegiac work written in 1948 to commemorate the assassination of Gandhi of that same year. Composed in three sections – Prelude, Funeral March and Coda – its harmonies and timbre might have been quite avant garde when written but nowadays they have lost their power to shock. The mournful cor anglais of the opening set the tone for the rest of the work while the conductor Claus Peter Flor elicited a mellow lyricism from the strings. Both the stormy sections which followed and the climax were effectively handled by Flor who successfully ratcheted up the tension, unleashing waves of sound and anger before adeptly dissipating the pent-up emotion. Martin Johnson, the leader of the cellos, conjured up a desolate, disconsolate sound world in his solo with moments that were touching in their simplicity.

Young Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin then tackled the least known of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, the Fourth. While it may not wallow in as many memorable, romantic melodies as the other three, its explorative harmonies and exciting pianism is a good argument in favour of it being heard much more frequently. Right from the opening muscular chords, Kozhukhin set out to showcase the brilliance of this concerto. Blessed with a technical prowess which might have made the composer himself envious, Kozhukhin tossed off octaves and chords as if child’s play and performed runs and passagework that glowed incandescently. However, all this was but a means to an end: keeping the artistic conception firmly in mind, Kozhukhin made sense of this complex work, luxuriating in the decadently rich harmonies, crafting the layered phrasing and exploding with a huge sound in the stormier moments. While there are far fewer opportunities for wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve in this concerto than the other three, Kozhukhin’s openly and highly expressive account of the second movement was rather convincing. The Allegro vivace finale did what it said on the tin: fast, flighty and feisty, it featured electrifying runs and spectacular virtuosic passages. Here once again, Kozhukhin’s exhilarating playing made for a riveting conclusion.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, which opened the second half, is a delightfully upbeat work, teaming with wonderful tunes and Flor and the NSO delivered a crisp, lithe performance. After the mellifluous opening and the perky flute exchange, Flor harnessed the inner energy well to produce playing of great verve. At times, the brass were too dominant and raucous though this did not detract from the mounting excitement, Flor’s diminutive frame leaning forward urging the orchestra on.

Charm characterised both the pastoral second movement and the gently seductive waltz of the third movement. In the former, the shy birdsong from the flutes burst forth into a triumphant pastoral climax from the whole orchestra while in the latter both strings and woodwind flirted and beguiled us with the seductive lilt of the melody and delicate frisson of the filigree.

In the finale the cello section successfully coaxed a silky lyricism from their instruments before Flor drove the music forward with a sharp demarcation of the rhythm. The brass was more restrained with its triumphalist fanfare and before the coda got underway, Flor and the NSO elicited a magical moment of calm dreaminess. The coda was duly thrilling and brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

Kozhukhin joined forces with the Contempo Quartet to perform Schnittke’s Piano Quintet. Conceived shortly after the death of his mother, its bleak and grief-stricken timbres represent a quasi-requiem to her. It is a difficult piece to listen to at the best of times but its positioning after the irrepressibly cheerful and tonal Symphony 8 of Dvořák served to highlight the latter’s mournful atonal meanderings and the micro-pitch whimpering. Both Kozhukin and the Contempo quartet did a fine job here, with the struggle between piano and strings fading into an uneasy silence at the end of the first movement. The dislocation of the piano’s passacaglia theme from the utterance of the strings was suitably bleak and chaotic before vanishing into the shadows.