Tag Archives: Denis Kozhukhin

BBC SSO / Menezes

City Halls, Glasgow

In what is now a fairly regular occurrence among orchestras, the BBC SSO was forced to field a last-minute replacement for its advertised conductor. Out went indisposed Estonian Kristiina Poska; in came Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes for an unchanged programme of Saariaho, Ravel and Mendelssohn.

It was a concert that began well, but seemed to lose its mojo in the second half. 

First up, Menezes addressed the sonic adventurism of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a beautifully illusory response to the notion of the magic lantern – the machine that created the earliest moving cinematic images – and in particular its influence on the work of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Saariaho’s title is a direct lift of that which Bergman gave his autobiography.

It’s a work that progresses on its own terms, an overarching timelessness in which Saariaho presents her ideas patiently and confidently, with more than a touch of the surreal. Those weirdly drooping notes, the spectral floating chords, those shimmering dreamy textures compounded by words whispered by the players, all contributed to the slow-setting scene-opener. An eventual change in mood was predictable – given the presence of six horns and double timpani – coming in the form of a near cataclysmic climax rich in percussive glitter and ripened brass. 

Menezes adopted a mainly pragmatic role in sewing together the wistful, complex threads of this enchanting music, outwardly business-like and leaving the SSO to work its own magic. 

In Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, it was Russian soloist Denis Kozhukhin who took the commanding lead. Dramatic and uncompromising, his steely view of the opening movement dictated a performance that took Ravel’s expressive contrasts to their utmost extremes. There was lightning lustre and willowy calm, leisurely reflection and impatient vivacity, and a finality that brought us crashing back to earth.

Still to come was the melting lyricism of the slow movement, its unaccompanied opening theme searingly and effortlessly projected; and a finale bursting with an ebullience and effervescence aimed mercilessly at exaggerating its sardonic brevity. The SSO fed off Kozhukhin’s musical charisma with a sharpness and definition of its own.

Compared to that, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony seemed disappointingly cumbersome. Menezes showed intent in narrating the lengthy first movement discourse, but did so with slowish, stolid pacing. There was spirited uplift in the swifter second movement, despite misjudged balance that left key melodies overwhelmed by over-inflated accompaniment. The slow movement evolved with pleasing unpretentiousness, but there was little sense of a returning joie de vivre in the finale, its closing maestoso curiously projected as an overripe afterthought, which it isn’t.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. 

The programme is repeated on Sunday 14 May at 3pm in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Details at www.usherhall.co.uk 

RSNO / Heyward

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

One of the most exciting aspects of any orchestral concert can be the dynamic struck up between the conductor and the concerto soloist. It can be synergic or combative, thrustful or accommodating; it can result in an explosive sum that is greater than the parts, or a resigned cancellation of opposites that merely produces benign compromise. 

The outcome arising from the partnership of Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin and American conductor Jonathon Heyward in Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto with the RSNO – both late replacements for the advertised Joyce Yang and Edo de Waart – was up there in the starry high ground, Kozhukhin’s feisty unpredictability bouncing off the efficient and alert Heyward in a way that multiplied the enjoyment. 

Mostly, it was a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride, Kozhukhin’s dry, side-stepping whimsy close to mischief-making, which the cooler-headed Heyward did well to translate into as tidy an orchestral response as was possible. There were certainly hairy moments where absolute coordination was challenged, but that in itself created an explosive tension that ensured this Grieg was anything but run-of-the-mill.

It was clear, even in the familiar opening piano cascade, that it was to be Kozhukhin’s way or the highway. Reaching deep into the keys, every degree of touch had meaning and intent. The outer movements sizzled with bold and athletic musicality, the central slow movement found him toying with its lyrical quietude. There was possibly more in colour terms that Heyward could have coaxed from the RSNO, but this was ultimately a powerful showcase to which both artists contributed vital thoughts and crackling energy.

Before that, the 29-year-old conductor – newly appointed as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – had proved his quiet adeptness in James MacMillan’s 2017 orchestral reworking of an earlier 2009 choral setting of the Miserere, now called Larghetto for Orchestra. Given its similarity in character to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings – that same heavenly lyricism, its unhurried richness and warmth – you wonder to what extent the title is a deliberate allusion.

But it is MacMillan through and through, luxuriously devotional, haunted initially by subliminal references to his own famous Tryst melody (think back to Karen Cargill’s sung performance of that two weeks ago with the RSNO, forming part of the Three Scottish Songs) which finally appears, fully harmonised, in the heart-stopping closing bars. Heyward captured the reflective stillness of the work, but also its moments of heightened sentiment.

He ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, choosing to do so without controversy or novelty, simply expressing it in calm, rounded terms. If that was to play down the maximum theatricality of the opening movement and paint the Scherzo in honest unsensational light, there was no lack of individuality in the organic shaping of the Allegretto and exuberant flourishes of the finale.

It’s worth mentioning the encouraging turn-out on Saturday for an RSNO Glasgow series that has struggled with audience numbers so far this season. A very good sign.

Ken Walton