Portland Piano International preview: Denis Kozhukhin

Russian pianist goes to war with Prokofiev and plays Haydn's classical sonatas.


Denis Kozhukhin makes his debut in Portland Sunday and Monday, January 25-26, as part of Portland Piano International’s 2014-2015 season. He talked with ArtsWatch about how he searches for good sounds, how Prokofiev relates to Haydn, and how pianists enter into the struggle of Prokofiev’s war sonatas.

Denis Kozhukhin. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell (c) 2012.

Denis Kozhukhin. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell (c) 2012.

OAW: What are you reading? Who are your favorite visual artists? And where else do you draw inspiration from?

DK: Right now I’m reading Kafka’s works, and one of my favorite painters is Van Gogh because of his incredible expression and intensity. That’s what I appreciate when I go to the concert hall or listen to a recording: the intensity of music making, the intensity of the mind creating music. The mind is like a big pot where everything’s cooking, and the mind makes connections you yourself wouldn’t normally think about. Sometimes, years after, you see something or you talk to someone and one sentence, one phrase, one picture suddenly comes up.

In the world of music, symphony orchestra is probably my favorite. When I listen to music I listen to more chamber and orchestra music than piano music.

What is extremely helpful and what I love about being a pianist is being a chamber musician. Pianists have a tendency more so than other instrumentalists to do everything alone. We practice alone; we perform alone. It’s a very rich experience playing with others. For example, when I started working with singers, I discovered the physical feeling of how music breathes.

What is it like to go back and forth between the two very different sound worlds of Prokofiev and Haydn?

At the Prado Museum there is the famous painting Las Meninas by Velázquez and on the opposite side of the hall is Picasso’s painting Las Meninas, which is his own interpretation of that piece. it’s completely different, pure Picasso style. It’s the same way switching from Prokofiev to Haydn. The works are in the same sonata form but the musical language is separated by centuries. It’s interesting to put them together and see what kind of evolution happened in music.

When Haydn was composing he couldn’t even imagine in his worst possible nightmare what would happen to the sonata form in the future. However, Prokofiev had the education and studied the classical way of composing. In fact, his first symphony is called “classical” and is in the style of Haydn. Critics have said of this first symphony that if Haydn were alive in 1917 that’s how he would have composed.

Your manner of playing Prokofiev’s war sonatas seems to speak of someone who doesn’t back down from struggling with realities that may seem cruel and meaningless. What have you had to fight for in your life?

I usually avoid making direct connections between my life and my music, but I lost my mother when I was eleven and this marks my life forever. Even the happiest person on earth, when playing music, must become an actor. When you perform something that is very tragic, very dramatic, you have to enter into the skin of the character, or in our case, the music. In terms of piano music, I think Prokofiev’s war sonatas are the biggest struggle you can find; I make a parallel with Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, the Leningrad symphony. But there is also a lot of love and hope in the war sonatas.

Discuss the steel fingers needed to play Prokofiev.

Yes, it is a very particular way of treating and playing the piano and requires a certain kind of touch that can be brutal. But I don’t break pianos playing these pieces!

Unfortunately some people hear the name Prokofiev and immediately think, “Bombastic, banging, a lot of noise and something horrible!” But these ideas are far from reality. Keep in mind that Prokofiev’s favorite composer was Frédéric Chopin. Prokofiev was a very sensitive person, and his music has a lot of lyricism. For me he remains one of the most melodic Russian composers. His melodies are extraordinary because he also studied and catalogued a lot of folk song, which comes out in his music.

When I perform his sonatas, yes there is a war going on so you can imagine a battlefield, but in other places there is silence and human song. In the second movement of the seventh sonata, there’s a human voice. When I was younger I imagined it was a mother singing a song to her child while the father is going to war. But this image changes and the next time I play, something else comes to mind. Ultimately, there’s a lot of emotion in this movement and something very touching coming out of this music.

What does it take to create good sounds on the piano?

On the piano it’s very much just imagining what you want. The problem is knowing exactly what you want. The piano is a percussive instrument: the hammer hits the strings. But the piano is also a magic instrument. When one knows what one can get from the piano, the piano has absolutely no limits whatsoever. This is what a real musician, a real piano master, does in his own life: he’s always searching for this better sound. And sound is a really relative thing. While it takes years of practice and good teachers, the piano has everything to do with imagination. It would be nice if one note in and of itself meant something, but it’s imagining how the notes fit together into one cohesive line. And then also the pedal, which is the lungs of the piano helping the music to breathe.

Are you planning on learning any 21st-century repertoire?

Ligeti is the most modern composer I have in my repertoire. One of the conductors with whom I worked said, “You and your generation need to play more music that is written today.” And he’s right. We should. There’s a lot of good music being created today and most of the time I’m spending it with music from a long time ago. So yes, I have ideas and will learn some very modern repertoire. I won’t say anything concrete right now, but even now I have some ideas for a recording and I hope to have it out in one or two years.

How do you recharge?

The first thing that comes to mind is Silence and Nature. I live in Berlin now and before that I lived in Brussels. But I’m not really a city person. I enjoy cities and all this big life happening around me. But after I come back from a concert tour I really appreciate waking up in the morning and there’s nothing except trees outside and squirrels jumping. Also my family: I have a four-month old son who is another great recharging source. I come back to him after a long trip and tiredness goes away immediately.

Jana Griffin is a pianist and teacher living in Portland.

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