Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London
Monday, 22 February 2016
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 24 March
What’s the music?
Haydn – Piano Sonata in D major, HXVI:24 (1773) (10 minutes)
Brahms – Theme and Variations in D minor (1860) (10 minutes)
Liszt – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (1847) (16 minutes)
Bartók – Out of Doors (1926) (14 minutes)
Denis Kozhukhin has recorded the Haydn sonata but not any of the other works in this repertoire. In case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains legendary recordings of the Brahms (Radu Lupu), the Liszt (Claudio Arrau) and Andreas Haefliger’s account of the Bartók:
About the music
Haydn is acknowledged as the godfather of so many forms that became the norm in classical music from the late 1700s onwards. As well as the symphony and the string quartet, he left a great body of piano sonatas that are fresh, original and ground breaking. Later examples from Beethoven and Schubert would surely not have been written were it not for works such as the D major example here.
The Brahms Theme and Variations is actually an arrangement of the second movement of his String Sextet no.1 – and transcribes for piano effortlessly, so much so that the listener would think it was a piano original. This was in order for it to be played by Clara Schumann, who received the score as a forty-first birthday present in 1860.
Liszt wrote his Benediction as part of a cycle of ten pieces for piano called Harmonies poétiques et religeuses in 1847. It is a relatively long, single span of contemplation, and in it the composer writes music that could be seen as an early pointer towards the so-called ‘impressionism’ of Debussy and Ravel. So often known for writing barnstorming piano pieces, Liszt takes his foot off that particular pedal for once.
Liszt’s fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók wrote his short set of five pieces, Out of Doors, in 1926. As its name suggests it is a celebration of the Hungarian countryside, by raucous day – pipes, drums and chases – and by atmospheric night, where the sounds of amphibious creatures can be heard in some of his exquisite nocturnal picture painting.
From this concert it is very clear that Denis Kozhukhin is a special talent. The well-designed hour of music moved almost seamlessly from the simplicity of Haydn to the brazen antics of the Bartók with almost no join.
Kozhukin’s Haydn was lovely, the D major sonata receiving an airy performance with plenty of rubato – which means a stylish way of letting the music breathe – so that the rhythms were not too rigid.
The Brahms was similarly magical in the quieter passages, allowing Kozhukhin to use an imposing tone when the music returned to the minor key. This was a performance flying in the face of the obvious technical difficulties presented by the composer – and the same could be said for the Liszt, reaching moments of hypnotic beauty in its outer sections.
Kozhukhin took his time here, creating and maintaining the mood of contemplation, holding the atmosphere while easily managing the fiendishly difficult writing for the right hand. In the Bartók he found a good balance between percussive power and the primitive, folksy material that the composer brings to the surface. As a result Out of Doors felt like a celebration, entertaining and energetic, but with an added chill to the night pieces.
What should I listen out for?
1:10 – the piece starts with a flourish in the right hand, one that recalls the sonatas of Scarlatti – as BBC Radio 3 announcer Fiona Talkington points out. It is a fresh tune that twinkles with the accompaniment that Haydn chooses, with very little bass. As is customary the first section is repeated (2:14) before at 3:20 Haydn starts to develop his main idea, moving it around harmonically. This is brief – as at 4:25 we hear the main idea again.
5:47 – the slow movement, which is immediately quite sombre and preoccupied. It is in the style of an aria, as though an imaginary singer were taking the line Haydn gives to the right hand. It is a brief but poignant movement, lost in thought towards the end. Haydn emerges from the quiet mood, leading straight into…
8:54 – the last movement, a short structure bright in tone and with an amicable tune. The end is rather nicely done.
11:44 – Brahms begins with a grand statement. The first statement of the tune is given to the right hand, while the left plays arpeggiated chords. It is a big tune – and the first of six variations starts at 13:09, still in the minor key. By 15:38 the music is worked up and full of darkly coloured passion, but then Brahms slips effortlessly into the major key and a lighter outlook (16:54), from where Kozhukhin leads to a radiant variation. At 20:04 the austere minor key returns, but Brahms still finished in the major key, settling the strife experienced earlier.
22:35 – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (God’s blessing of solitude) is a radiant performance of a piece that begins with a very long melodic phrase. It is quite unusual for Liszt in having very few moments of fire and brimstone, and instead achieves a kind of ecstasy of contemplation. The key – F sharp major – is key to this, the black keys somehow much more mystical than the white on this occasion! There are two central sections – both calming influences (28:39 and 30:58) before the original material returns (32:28). We hear all three tunes before the piece closes softly.
39:03 – With Drums and Pipes – an exuberant if heavy start, low on the piano. This is almost an early precedent of rock music with its pounding rhythms!
40:40 – Barcarolla – a slower dance that flows nicely but which sounds uneasy, as though the direction of the boat on the water is uncertain.
43:10 – Musettes – this is rustic, dance-based material, where a lot of the tunes sound as though they are packed with wrong notes (they aren’t!) It makes them strangely charming.
46:05 – The Night’s Music – a classic example of a Bartók night setting. The music closes in on itself, and in the distance some animal / insect noises can be heard, disturbing the night’s piece when they get closer or make sudden noises, such as when Kozhukhin slams the upper end of the piano. It is an atmospheric and highly descriptive piece of music, and more than a little eerie as the sounds persist, seemingly stopping any chance of sleep.
51:11 – The Chase – a bruising encounter with the hands seemingly all over the place on the keyboard. The rhythms are deliberately inconsistent as the music hurries along, with great dissonance and surprises in both parts.
54:35 – the first encore is a sonata from Domenico Scarlatti – a relatively slow one that makes much of a trill in the right hand. It was published as Kk247 and lasts four minutes…after which point (at 59:01) we hear another sonata, this time from the Spanish composer Antonio Soler – a brighter example in D major – just the two minutes.
At the bottom of the playlist you can hear the original Brahms Theme and Variations, written as the second movement in his String Sextet no.1. You can then hear another set of variations – on a theme of Haydn – as well as trying to second guess where Liszt was heading, in the direction of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau! Finally some more Bartók – his three movement Piano Sonata, just as raucous and unhinged as Out of Doors. Listen below: