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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Songs without Words – Selections
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric Pieces – Selections
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
rec. 2018, Music Broadcast Center, Hilversum, Netherlands
PENTATONE PTC5186734 SACD [65:37]

Denis Kozhukhin burst onto the international scene when he won the very prestigious Brussels-based Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2010. He has since been extremely busy both in the concert hall and the recording studio, maintaining the momentum from his victory that eludes so many major competition winners whose meteoric rise turns rather quickly into a descent to obscurity. In the decade since his triumph Kozhukhin has played at the most important concert venues and with major conductors and orchestras. Moreover, he has performed a remarkably wide range of works by Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartok, Poulenc, Gershwin, Lutosławski and many others. Here we have his newest recording featuring works by Mendelssohn and Grieg, composers who have often appeared in his concerts and recitals.

Not suprisingly, the twenty-six mostly short pieces on this SACD are generally light, colorful and not of challenging virtuosic character. They have a somewhat limited range of moods too, tending to express, with a few exceptions, sunlit or gently reflective feelings or to take on a festive or winsome character. True, there are some stormy Mendelssohn pieces here (Op. 30, No. 2) and somewhat troubled ones (Op. 19, No. 2; Op. 30, No. 6), but these tend to be mild and not deeply overwrought. Even in music that has an agitated character like Op. 19, No. 5, marked not coincidentally Allegro agitato, the emotional thrust is at times almost playful, the music not really taking its urgency too seriously. Yet, despite the lightness of much of the music here, both the Mendelssohn and Grieg works can be quite challenging from an interpretive perspective.

Kozhukhin understands the music and its interpretive demands, and thus generally captures the character of each piece effectively, not attempting to wring out angst that isn’t there. I think he is most convincing in the Mendelssohn pieces. All the more “serious” ones that I have cited above are played particularly well as are virtually all the others. Try his sensitive account of the disc’s leadoff work, the Op. 19 Song without Words in E major, and notice Kozhukhin’s lush legato in the running notes of the left hand and his subtle dynamics that together enable him to effectively express the serenity and comeliness of the music. He offers a vigorous and brilliant account of No. 3 from this same set as well, a piece that actually anticipates Schumann in its grand celebratory character. In Kozhukhin’s rendition of No. 2, Op. 67, notice his subtle use of rubato and dynamics, and take note of how he perfectly captures the quirky, playful character of the piece. His tempos throughout the Mendelssohn pieces—and, for that matter, the Grieg as well, are generally moderate to slightly brisk, and almost always work most effectively.

In the end, I must rank Kozhukhin’s Mendelssohn as superb, but his Grieg is nearly as good – distinguished in many ways, in fact. His Op. 12 Lyric Pieces are light, colorful, paced judiciously and typically well phrased. That said, subtle though he is in Waltz (No. 2), both his rubato and dynamics are exaggerated a bit in places. The two selections from Op. 38 are very well imagined and convincingly brought off, while in the Op. 43 Lyric Pieces Kozhukhin delivers utterly infectious and effervescent accounts of Butterfly and Little Bird, both works seeming to be early examples of Impressionism, masterful ones I might add. Elegy, from Op. 47, is brilliantly phrased to yield a dark sense of loss, about the only Grieg work in the collection showing a truly serious character: the other Elegy here (Op.38) is less weighty and more reflective in mood, and Kozhukhin delivers a touching account as well.

I have a small quibble about the pianist’s tendency to lighten the music to fluff at times, where a measure of weight and grit should also be in the mix. For example, his March of the Trolls, from Op. 54, is nicely played with brilliant dynamics, but I think a little too brisk for its Allegro moderato marking, and while it is playful, it is more comical in a slapstick way than witty and subtle. Many will favor his way with this piece, however. The rest of the Lyric Pieces on the disc are, like most other works here, very well played, although I wish his Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, No. 6 from Op. 65, had a bit less frivolity and more of a robust celebratory character in the outer sections. Still, it’s a charming account of this piece, which at 6:09, is longer than any other on the disc by about double.

One of the strongest selling points about this SACD is how imaginatively and wisely Kozhukhin has made his selections, assembling some of the finest pieces from these varied sets and arranging them in packages that offer color, contrast and logic in their presentation. While there are some fine past accounts of these sets—Rena Kyriakou (Vox) and Péter Nagy (Naxos), both complete, in the Mendelssohn Songs without Words, and Håkon Austbø, complete in the Grieg Lyric Pieces, while Richter (DG) and Pletnev (DG) have good discs of selections in Grieg—I can say I haven’t heard anyone clearly better than Kozhukhin in either. Moreover, Pentatone’s sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced, and the album notes by Nigel Simeone are quite informative. Anyone interested in this repertory will certainly not be let down by the sparkling performances of Denis Kozhukhin on this disc.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: 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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