The combination of music by Claude Debussy and George Gershwin in a piano programme feels a little odd, but it works. Both composers provide an unstructured listening experience – Debussy through his impressionistic blurring of structure, Gershwin through his jazz-influenced subversion of form. Denis Kozhukhin brought both verve and sensitivity to the works of each of them, such that this commonality was to the fore.
Debussy’s Préludes, Book I is full of contrasting pieces – the delicacy of La fille aux cheveux du lin, the whimsy of Dance de Puck, the pyrotechnic brilliance towards the end of Les collines d’Anacapri – and Kozhukhin took all of them in his stride. The recent blanket of snow in London was instantly brought to mind by the lightest of touches applied to the formless wandering of Des pas sur la neige, and a similar ethereality prevailed in the right-hand chords of Voiles, underscored by the low B-flat in the left hand, whose permutations of volume and attack were legion. The moodiness of Debussy’s pieces was also present in the turbulence of Le vent dans la plaine and the Spanish lilt of La serenade interrompue, whose triple-time emerged in a sultry fashion from the texture. La cathédrale engloutie displayed Kozhukhin’s skill at transition from one mood to another, with its slow build-up from undersea murkiness through the mercurial darting of fish, to the sonorous tolling of the bell accompanied by massive ‘organ’ chords.
Gershwin’s Songbook is a selection of 18 abbreviated songs compiled by him from his ‘party turns’ at the piano, and Kozhukhin once again demonstrated his understanding of the character of the pieces and the nuances of the composer – performing Gershwin’s little blues flourishes with exactitude, but bringing a loose-limbed and flexible flair to the playing that accentuated the cheekiness of Somebody loves me, the gentle but complex stride of Nobody but you, the lush romanticism of Sweet and low down and That certain feeling, and the witty martiality of Strike up the band; his account of The man I love became almost the slow movement of a Rachmaninov concerto.
Kozhukhin brought a similar élan to Gershwin’s three contrasting preludes, tackling the Latin feel of the first, the blues quality of the second and the Spanish ben ritmo of the third with equal sensitivity. His tour de force, though, was an utterly mesmerising account of Gershwin’s arrangement of his own Rhapsody in Blue for solo piano. The piece requires the touch of a master, as everything that is in the full version is there, and the pianist needs to bring out the solo piano part as well as supply the cross-rhythms of the orchestra with just two hands, and Kozhukhin achieved it summa cum laude, taking some portions at breakneck speed with stunning accuracy and attack – at one point, even lifting himself off the piano stool. It was perhaps as well that his encore – a gentle and sensitive account of Grieg’s Til våren allowed the audience to get their breaths.
Emotion runs high in Kozhukhin’s performances: he bestows smouldering glances on the audience, and the hair of his man-bun comes artfully adrift; there is, in all this, a touch of the piano-lion of 19th-century salons, and one expects the sal volatile bottles to be reached for and pearls to be clutched. He is, sadly, a noisy performer, producing sighs and sniffs and audible intakes of breath. However much this may support a Byronic image, it is annoying to listen to, and detracts from the excellent performances. The world is not short of brilliant pianists, and all this hissing and fizzing is an unattractive USP.