Kozhukhin explores the dark shadows for Friends of Chamber Music

By Dave Rosenbaum

Denis Kozhukhin performed a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Monday night in Coral Gables.

Denis Kozhukhin performed a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Monday night in Coral Gables.

The pianist Denis Kozhukhin wasn’t searching for musical beauty in his recital Monday night for Friends of Chamber Music. He was exploring the reasons Johannes Brahms referred to his Three Intermezzi as “lullabies for my sorrows”; and expressing the darkness of the Hungarian night and intensity of the chase in Bela Bartok’s Out of Doors.

Audience members who came to Coral Gables Congregational Church hoping to hear lush melodies will have been disappointed. Those hoping to hear a 30-year-old Russian virtuoso exposing the emotional depths of challenging music and displaying his technical artistry had to walk away thrilled.

Kozhukhin, winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, was making his second appearance in three years for Friends of Chamber Music. Considering that his current tour has him playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra (including an appearance February 7 at the Kravis Center), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, his generous two-hour recital at a small church in Coral Gables was one of the gifts of the local musical season.

Perhaps the one downside to the evening was its narrow emotional quality; the five works on the program lent to Kozhukhin’s apparent desire to find the darkness in everything he played. By the second hour, emotional relief would have been welcome.

But it was easy to be in awe of Kozhukhin. Many times, it was hard to believe that just ten fingers on a single keyboard could produce such magnificent, complex sounds. Yet Kozhukhin never gave off a sense of ostentatious showmanship; his emotion always felt genuine. Sometimes, Kozhukhin seemed to have cocooned himself in the room, so deeply connected was he with the music.

The pianist’s intensity was apparent from the outset as he attacked the opening bars of George Frederic Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G minor. The piece was written for harpsichord, and Kozhukhin occasionally made his Boesendorfer piano sound like a baroque instrument. In the alternating fast-slow first five movements, Kozhukhin displayed impressive accuracy in the blazing fast passages and a delicate touch in the slow passages, his sound alternating between rich and bold and clear and echoing.

Kozhukhin depicted Brahms’ sorrows with a dark, brooding and moody reading of the composer’s First Intermezzi. The melody in the Second Intermezzi was more haunting than lovely but nonetheless moving.

Bartok’s restless Out of Doors, a set of five tenuously connected pieces meant to convey day and night in the Hungarian countryside, was a perfect match for Kozhukhin. Playing from his music on an iPad Pro, with a Bluetooth page-turning device at his left foot, Kozhukhin’s reading was at times jolting, the range of emotions going from dark to darker to darkest.  Starting low on the keyboard in the first piece, “With Drums and Pipes,” Kozhukhin brought out the percussiveness of the piano with deep pounding free of melody but filled with foreboding. So ominous were the sounds he produced in “Musiques nocturnes” that the Hungarian countryside sounded like a place nobody would want to be at night.

Even in Carl Maria von Weber’s relatively light Piano Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Kozhukhin unearthed some brooding undertones.

In selections from Isaac Albeniz’s expansive Iberia, Kozhukhin produced an almost-symphonic sound. He tore into the piece’s faster, more-intense passages with gusto and intensity, but he was so adroit at handling tempo changes that when he settled into the gentle coda, one could almost forget the earlier mayhem.

An encore was hardly necessary after the drama of the previous two hours, but Kozhukhin chose to bring the audience to a smooth landing with Scarlatti’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, K247. But it was the fervency of the evening’s previous performances that would likely stay with them.

The Friends of Chamber Music season continues with soprano Michelle Bradley and pianist Ken Noda 8 p.m. November 5 at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall. miamichambermusic.org.

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Tue Oct 18, 2016
at 1:50 pm
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