GERSHWIN; RAVEL Piano Concertos (Kozhukhin)
Like many of the young musicians of the post-Soviet diaspora, Denis Kozhukhin naturally sought out Russian teachers in the West, but not exclusively. Though an unshakeable Russianness is at the core of his musical personality, to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries who have spent significant time outside their homeland, Kozhukhin seems open to Western influences. He has become cosmopolitan, in the best sense of the word. It’s an attribute that is immediately discernible in his new Pentatone release of Ravel and Gershwin concertos.
From the sparkling, perky opening measures of the Ravel G major Concerto, it’s clear that a remarkable performance is in store. In a work that, in lesser hands and imaginations, can seem a patchwork of influences, Kozhukhin fully inhabits Ravel’s protean topoi with the dextrous ease of a quick-change artist. The Adagio assai unfolds with an unguarded simplicity that goes straight to the heart with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile. Despite all the precision, drollery, constantly shifting colours and breathtaking speed of the finale, one affect is prevalent: tremendous fun. Yamada and the OSR musicians are the lithe participants and, on occasion, enablers of this exhilarating performance.
The Concerto for the Left Hand, so different from the G major Concerto in style and intent, is given a performance where poise, emotional resonance and clarity exist in perfect symbiosis. Kozhukhin’s opening cadenza may be heroic in posture but its heroics are tempered by reason. Somehow, a fundamentally French sense of proportion pervades this interpretation. This doesn’t preclude, however, flights of the most delicious fantasy. In the extended solo before the final tutti (14'46"), it is as though we struggle free of terra firma, with its mock militarism and grand apotheoses, rising towards the higher regions, beyond care, unfettered, guided only by the wind. There’s no way to describe it other than exquisite piano-playing.
With both Ravel concertos spot on, it’s perhaps inevitable that the Gershwin falls a bit short of the mark. Certainly the orchestra seem to have wandered beyond their comfort zone, and even Kozhukhin’s best efforts can’t get the act completely back on the road. It comes off as more dutiful than brash, swaggering and unabashedly sentimental. In this instance, better check out the recording by Lincoln Mayorga with the Harmonie Ensemble/New York under Steven Richman (Harmonia Mundi, 9/16).
That said, the Ravel concertos are worth the price of purchase and then some. Don’t miss it.