Denis Kozhukhin at St John’s Smith Square

Classical Source

As part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series – those instalments that would normally grace the being-refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall are relocated to St John’s – Denis Kozhukhin included a couple of Haydn Sonatas and played them with brilliance, sensitivity and wit. His subtle and dynamic approach was a joy. 

The Brahms pieces were generously unfolded. The Theme and Variations (which started life as the slow movement of the B-flat String Sextet, Opus 18) found Kozhukhin relishing embellishment and chorale, creating bell-like sounds at the still, quiet centre. In a recital that found the pianist moving swiftly from one movement to another and from one work to another, if without suggesting impatience – he’s not one to milk applause – Kozhukhin entered into the turbulent world of the first number of the Seven Fantasies while clapping ensued. 

The Liszt was altogether exceptional – luxuriant and evocative, ideally contemplative, ravishing the senses. Kozhukhin strummed the keys to create wonderfully dulcet sonorities and phrasing that breathed, developing the music to unforced ecstasy and creating a revelation, a divine one. If for these 15 minutes the piano had lost any affinity with percussiveness, it was found with a pounding bass vengeance in ‘With Drums and Pipes’ to open Bartók’s restless Out of Doors suite. Kozhukhin may have needed the score – supplied by an iPad – but he was a master of the five movements’ shapes and shifts, whether jagged and aggressive or during the icy dissonance of ‘The Night’s Music’, folksy references breaking through.

Kozhukhin found a kick in the latter stages of ‘The Chase’, enough to bring the church down, and then two encores extended the evening, first with one of those miraculous Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas – slow, almost sacred here - and then a Sonata by Soler, fast and rumbustious. Irrespective of age (late-20s) and nationality (Russian), Denis Kozhukhin is simply one of the best pianists around.