Pianist Kozhukhin searches for harmony in a wide range of music

By Aaron Keebaugh

Denis Kozhukhin will perform a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Tuesday night in Coral Gables. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Denis Kozhukhin will perform a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Tuesday night in Coral Gables. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Career paths are different for every pianist. Some focus on giving recitals while others eschew chamber music altogether for the spectacle of the concert hall, the sound of an orchestra enveloping their playing of a concerto.

But for pianist Denis Kozhukhin, they are all just different but equally important parts in a single multifaceted career.

“I have to say that the aspects of my playing, the chamber music, solo recital, and concertos with orchestras are at the same level of importance to me,” the Russian pianist said from his home in Berlin. “I am trying to combine them in such a way that there is a higher kind of harmony.”

Since winning First Prize at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels in 2010 at the tender age of 23, Kozhukhin has kept high profile through an international touring schedule that has taken him to the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall, and, most recently, the Ravinia Festival.

His current and longest U.S. tour has featured him in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in New York last February and in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra this past August. In addition, he remains active in performing chamber music, having accompanied musicians such as the Jerusalem Quartet, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, clarinetist Jörg Widmann, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, among others.

Some of his biggest accolades of late are due to his work as a recitalist. Kozhukhin will present a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Tuesday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church.

At 28 years old, the blond-haired, fresh-faced Kozhukhin seems to be at the height of his powers. With his sparkling technique and substantive interpretations of the wide range of music he performs, he stands at the vanguard of Russian pianists of his generation.

Born in Nizhny Novgorod (known then as Gorky) into a family of musicians, Kozhukhin absorbed music from an early age, learning piano from his mother and singing in the choir directed by his father. While still a child, he attended the Balakirev School of Music, where he continued his piano studies with Natalia Fish.

At 14 he moved to Madrid, Spain to further his training under Dmitry Bashkirov and Claudio Martinez-Mehner at the Reina Sofía School of Music. His studies didn’t stop there, and he took additional lessons and master classes from such luminary pianists as Fou Ts’ong, Stanislav Yudenitch, Peter Frankl, Boris Berman, Charles Rosen, Andreas Staier, and Kirill Gerstein.

“I always say I was really lucky with teachers,” Kozhukhin said, “every one of them gave me something. I believe that the seeds that our teachers—and I’m not only talking about teachers, I’m also talking about chamber musicians with whom I’ve shared the stage, conductors, even entire orchestras—all of the seeds, they’re just planted in your brain, and through your life some of them will just stay there.

“Maybe it’s something completely opposite to your own nature. But some of [the ideas] through the years, they start to grow,” he said. “It’s very interesting to look back and see what actually influenced me and what didn’t and how it’s all combining.”

One thing he has picked up from his experiences is the creation of effective and thought-provoking concert programs. Two of his performances in the U.S. this month—Tuesday’s recital for Miami’s Friends of Chamber Music and an appearance November 21 for the University of Chicago Presents series—couple sonatas by Haydn with those of Prokofiev.

“Obviously when people look at a recital program and see one Haydn sonata and next a Prokofiev sonata, they think ‘Oh, this is odd because they’re so different,’ but I think that’s what makes the recital so special,” Kozhukhin said. “You know when you play a concerto, it’s one piece, you go you play and you go home. But the magic of a recital is the way one can [discover] pieces. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t. [But] I believe it’s all to do with trying.”

“I like to improvise,” he added. “I like to put together Haydn sonatas, which were written some centuries ago, and Prokofiev sonatas, and to see and to show the public, and to see myself, how the form was evolving and changing over the years, what [the composers] took from it, what they added. So this is why I try to give a lot of variety to my programs.”

Kozhukhin’s recitals will feature Haydn’s sunny Sonata in F major, to be played in Miami, and the Sonata in D major, which will be heard in Chicago.

“Haydn, of course, he has very tragic music, but in his keyboard sonatas, I find that his sense of humor is extremely rich and it has many sides,” Kozhukhin said. “Sometimes he’s making jokes of himself, of his own writing. It’s really very joyful music. The first movement and third movement are very happy and full of life and energy, and then you have a small second movement which is very intimate and is very delicate. So his moods change all the time.”

Then there’s the Sonata in B minor, which Kozhukhin will also play in his Chicago recital.

“That’s one of the exceptions,” Kozhukhin said of the piece. “[Haydn] has a very dramatic first movement and a very dramatic third movement, but then he has a second movement which is a very lovely kind of minuet, and it’s like the smell of something very fresh.”

It’s a freshness that, to Kozhukhin’s mind, complements Prokofiev’s explosive War Sonatas, which will be featured in both recitals.

“They have something in common: their sense of humor,” the pianist said of Haydn and Prokofiev’s style.

But that humor is often buried beneath the waves of darkness that characterize the “War Sonatas,” the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth of Prokofiev’s sonatas that date from the Second World War.

“In the music itself you can hear that there is something horrible, there is something terrifying. It’s a huge tragedy on a human scale,” Kozhukhin said of the works.

The War Sonatas are something of a specialty for Kozhukhin, so much so that he was tapped to perform them at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Rest is Noise Festival in May 2013. His recording of the works for the Onyx Classical label have also received critical acclaim.

“But Prokofiev’s music, what I love about him is that immediately in his pieces you can hear that it’s his music,” Kozhukhin said. “It’s extraordinary how early he had his own language, his own way of expressing. He always knew he was a power, he was a source of something very pure and something very creative and different, even in his own life.”

“And you know this energy, this belief in the progress and evolution of music, of human thinking and creating in art, it always helps me to move on,” he added.

Kozhukhin will perform Prokofiev’s muscular Seventh and Eighth Sonatas in his Chicago recital. His Miami appearance will also feature the Eighth, but the pianist will add an additional work, Brahms’ Seven Fantasien, Op. 116.

Brahms’ music is an admitted personal favorite of Kozhukhin’s. “How can someone say something in a few phrases about Brahms?,” the pianist said after taking a deep breath. “I came to his music through chamber music because I started to play his quartets and trios. Only then . . . I started to learn his solo pieces.”

Of Brahms’ piano sonatas, Kozhukhin said that he mostly plays the First. But the composer’s late works seems to appeal to the young pianist even more so. The Seven Fantasien, Op. 116 date from the end of Brahms’ life and are filled with a vigorous, penetrating emotionalism characteristic of the composer’s late style.

“Those pieces, they are extremely deep,” Kozhukhin said. “They’re also very hectic.”

“There are a lot of pieces [in the set] which are really unquiet, I don’t know how to say, very disturbing in a way. But then he has these amazing philosophical and lyrical things where you can just see how complex his personality was,” he said. “You know, I’m now 28, and even if I would be 108 the music [would] still [have] things to discover.”

That is what keeps Kozhukhin coming back to such familiar pieces.

“I think, as with any great composer, with any great music, you take ten artists and everyone will find something different in those pieces. Prokofiev’s things were written [in the] last century, and things like Bach or Haydn even, they were written a long time ago and still people perform them. And why? It’s because there are endless possibilities, there are endless things to find and endless things to search for.”

And, ultimately, Kozhukhin’s quest is to uncover what lies beneath the surface of every piece he performs.

“What is so great about all this [is that] you never get to the truth, you never get to the perfection, [but] you can try,” he said. “I think this is what the life of a musician is about.”

Denis Kozhukhin will perform works by Haydn, Brahms, and Prokofiev in a recital sponsored by the Friends of Chamber Music 8 p.m. Tuesday at Coral Gables Congregational Church. miamichambermusic.org; 305-372-2975. 

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Thu Nov 13, 2014
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