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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Songs without Words - selections
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric Pieces - selections
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
rec. 2018, Studio 5, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, Netherlands
PENTATONE PTC5186734 SACD [65:37]

I have encountered Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin only in big concertos. He gave a tremendous account of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto in London recently; alongside the power there was much poetry, and the encore, Grieg’s tiny “Arietta”, was a jewel. That item features here, in a collection of short pieces taken from Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte and Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. The selection is very varied, ranging across most of the volumes in which these works were published. It includes familiar pieces such as Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Gondola Song” (Op. 30/6) and Grieg’s “Butterfly” (Op. 43/1), “March of the Trolls” (Op. 54/3) and “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” (Op. 65/6), and other rather more obscure but delightful pieces.

Kozukhin has a real feeling for this repertoire. He respects the relative simplicity of mood – and there is usually only space to evoke a single mood, because almost all the items last between one and three minutes, though a few middle sections can be fitted in for contrast. The sequence is chronological for each composer, and more than agreeable enough to listen to at a sitting. These series of pieces were aimed in part at the large 19th-century market of talented amateurs with the upright piano in the parlour (you might well have played some of them), but virtuosi have also been attracted to both series. There are complete editions on disc, but they probably make sense for most collectors presented as they are here in a sensitively programmed single-recital CD.

The first two items of Mendelssohn’s Op. 19, both marked Andante, set the tone, with mobile accompaniments and refreshing straightforward melody. But the composer is not writing down to those amateurs who so welcomed each publication, for here is real poetry – within a certain technical limitation, but never within an emotional one. Thus the Gondolier’s song of Op. 30 has a lilting barcarolle rhythm which Kozhukhin plays with fluent poise, and his trills, so effectively placed by Mendelssohn, are near-ideal. The nearest we get to higher dramatic rhetoric is the opening fanfare – which presages that of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – of the E minor Andante maestoso (op. 62/3). It makes its effect well enough as does the whole piece, but it is kept in scale. The ensuing F sharp minor (Op. 67/2) has a leggiero marking which is properly but not affectedly observed, as it is kept tripping lightly. So too is its successor (Op. 67/4), the well-known “Spinning song” which is spun into a rich fabric with all the delicacy that it needs.

The Arietta (Op. 12/1) that opens the Grieg selection was one of the composer’s favourite melodies, and we can hear why in Kozhukhin’s subtly voiced and intimate reading. The famous “Butterfly” is a little steadier than some in tempo, and none the worse for that. Similarly the “March of the Trolls” does not overdo the comedic characterisation but etches it in tastefully, and the more elusive middle section is touching in its slight hesitancy. The “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”, much the longest piece at over six minutes, offers a typical example of Kozhukhin’s rubato. There is the tiniest hesitation before those emphatic chords, just enough to give a slight lift to the rhythm. And he makes its various small surprises sound fresh (it is not a piece that behaves exactly as you expect throughout). The “Notturno” of Op. 54/4 is suitably crepuscular in its haunting lyricism, typical of this artist’s poetic response to Grieg’s elusive world of feeling.

As we know through the work of artists such as Gilels and Andsnes, there is real pleasure in hearing what a major pianist can find in this music, especially given their usual exactness in the weighting of chords, the evenness of the runs, the subtlety of rubato. Kozhukhin is in that class too, and seems to have numerous levels of quiet playing at his command, possibly more than the composer has markings for. No-one will complain if they have a hi-fi system that can register the subtleties on offer from both player and the recording engineers. The beautiful SACD recorded sound gives pleasure in itself, capturing the even sound in all registers, with no hint of clangour or harshness in the treble. Nigel Simeone’s booklet note says a lot in too little space. These Victorian faded flowers are refreshed and revived by Kozhukhin, and bloom anew in this very enjoyable disc. Normally for me it would now be a case of deciding whether to file it under ‘G’ or ‘M’, but that can wait as I will keep this one by the player for a while.

Roy Westbrook
Book 1 Op. 19, Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 [11:42]
Book 2 Op. 30 Nos. 2 and 6 [5:05]
Book 3 Op. 38 Nos. 2 and 6 [5:30]
Book 5 Op. 62 No.3 [2:56]
Book 6 Op. 67 Nos. 2 and 4 [4:38]
Book 8 Op. 102 No. 3 [1:22]
Vol. I Op. 12, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 [3:49]
Vol. II Op. 38, Nos. 4 and 6 [3:24]
Vol. III Op. 43, Nos. 1, 4 and 6 [6:38]
Vol. IV Op. 47, No. 7 [2:57]
Vol. V Op. 54, Nos. 3, 4, and 5 [9:19]
Vol. VII Op. 62 No. 4 [1:53]
Vol. VIII Op. 65 No. 6 [6:09]

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