Friday 25 January 2013

The formidably gifted pianist Denis Kozhukhin gives phenomenal performances of Prokofiev sonatas on his debut recording from Onyx Classics

Following the revolution Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) left Russia in 1918, travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast and eventually making his way via Honolulu to San Francisco. Prokofiev had not in any sense emigrated and had, indeed, obtained a visa to travel from the Soviet authorities. He returned for a tour of Russia in 1927 and 1932 and, even after his return in 1933, he continued to travel abroad until 1938, when the Soviet authorities made this impossible.

Prokofiev’s first piano sonata was written between 1907and 1909, the second piano sonata in 1912, the third and fourth piano sonatas in 1917 and the fifth in 1923. From this it will be seen that, of his nine completed piano sonatas, only the fifth was written whilst living outside of Russia. The ninth sonata was written in 1947. There are only fragments of the tenth piano sonata which Prokofiev was working on before his death and which he gave the opus number 137. He designated the opus number 138 to a planned eleventh piano sonata.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 in A Op.82, Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat Op.83 and Piano Sonata No.8 in B flat Op.84 written in the years 1939-1940, 1939-1942 and 1939-1944 respectively, are often called the War Sonatas even though the sixth completely predates the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.  Denis Kozhukhin, winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, First Prize at the Vendome Prize in Lisbon in 2009 , and 3rd Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006, has recorded them on a debut disc for Onyx Classics

ONYX 4111
From the sixth sonata’s opening allegro moderato, Denis Kozhukhin shows great fire and commanding assurance. In the quieter, slower passages there is a freedom and thoughtfulness to his playing with immaculate phrasing. His playing never sounds rushed, letting the music unfold naturally. The spiky allegretto opens at a lovely pace and as it progresses, I just love the rhythmic phrases in the left hand, where there is a richness of tone. It is beautiful how he blends the central trio section imperceptibly into the whole. Marked tempo di valzer lentissimo, the third movement is a slow waltz that just saunters along, yet with Kozhukhin one always feels the threat of something more sinister emerging. In the final vivace, Kozhukhin shows such a formidable technique that the rapid passages seem so simple that he could coast over them – but he doesn’t as there is spirit and panache galore. He draws out every nuance and as the opening theme from the first movement returns tentatively Kozhukhin never loses sight of his overall vision. When the opening theme fully returns in the coda, it is very satisfying.

Prokofiev’s seventh sonata gains so much from Denis Kozhukhin’s attention to the small details, thoughtfully brought out, and combined with his overall architectural vision. You are always sure where he is taking you, such is his phrasing and sense of structure. Kozhukhin creates a perfect form through the allegro inquieto – poco meno – andantino, building the tension carefully and slowly, in playing of tremendous power and control. Kozhukhin’s careful pacing of the andante caloroso creates a false sense of security before the music grows and becomes more animated. Again there is a sense of assurance from Kozhukhin, fully in command of the music. There is a brilliant finale with playing that fully lives up to the marking precipitato. What a powerful build-up of tension and power in formidable playing that still shows his full command.

The eighth sonata’s opening andante dolce is full of breadth and space with tempi and phrasing allowing every line in the music to emerge and grow naturally. Here Kozhukhin brings out the strange wonder in this movement, but still allows the music to just take off when needed. There are so many lovely and brilliant touches here. The andante sognando is a lovely melody, so typical of Prokofiev, with changeable and volatile moments, played with such fire. The final vivace has sparkling playing, full of wonderful animated passages, superb rhythms and lovely flowing passages. This is a superb ending to a phenomenal performance.

This is the best Prokofiev playing I have heard for a long time. I look forward to hearing much more from this formidably gifted pianist. The recording engineer/producer, Preben Iwan, also deserves a mention as this is one of the best piano recordings I have heard, allowing the full rich detail of the piano to be heard.






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