I was completely unfamiliar with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, which pianist Denis Kozhukhin performed last tonight. Words fail me in describing this musical experience. The piece is insanely difficult, filled with explosive, muscular rhythmic dissonances that create a complex musical texture accompanied by powerful, angular, quasi-a-tonal melodic machinations that survive the fray generally under the pounding rhythmic accentuation exploding both above and below. I’ve never heard anything like it!
Kozhukhin was brutally strong without ever being harsh or unmusical. His “fingery,” mechanical execution was demonically precise but rarely robotic save for when a demanding robotic “mechanicalism” was what the composer required. This contrasted with swaths of gentle tonal sweeps that glided and glistened in and around the tumultuous, energetic, relentless throbbing and pounding. His long hair, tied back in a ponytail, would occasionally get loose and flop about, unhinged from its moorings just like the music.
The audience went wild with enthusiasm as the work came to its blistering, biting, perfectly-crafted cacophonous conclusion. Holy god! I was entranced from the very beginning. Kozhukhin had commanded the performance from the first note through to the end. His very first note spoke confidently of the piece as an already completed, masterful performance.
Everyone was energized yet exhausted. After gawking with awe into this explication of jaw-dropping energy, we were all emptied of the world’s difficulties and filled with a renewed power to conquer. Conquer anything. Conquer everything!
The audience would not let Kozhukhin leave the hall. He HAD to play an encore. The demand was as unstoppable as his performance of the Prokofiev. And the encore came, descended from the angels.
What the hell?!
I know something of playing the piano, but I had no idea the instrument was capable of what he did next. In direct contrast to the power of the Prokofiev, this piece was so delicate as to be fragile. The melodies were barely audible but never diminished, and the accompanying structures were mysteriously suspended beneath that transcendent melody.
His performance of this piece made the piano sound as though it had no hammers at all, as if the tiny tones emanating from the instrument were inexplicably born, floating out into the hall as if they had always been there just so soft as to have gone completely unnoticed until this very moment. Every phrase was perfectly nuanced, crafted to exist only as a delicate, beautiful hint tethered to an indescribable eternity. The piece ended so faintly the audience was spellbound and transfixed. The piano simply can not be played that softly, but somehow it was. The final note just hung in the hall, suspended in what seemed like an infinity of being, unfettered by time or audible decay.
Reflecting on the encore sends chills through me. Finally, he gently released the audience from the shimmering, breathless silence. I was done in. We were all done in.
During the intermission people were asking strangers, myself included, “What was the encore?! What was that glorious piece?” It was unspeakably gorgeous. Nobody knew for certain. Three different groups (unknown to one another) suggested that it was a transcription of a Bach piece. (Well, that doesn’t much narrow the field of possibilities.) I have to reach out to the music director on Monday to find out.
How did I manage to live to be 60 without hearing this piece, and without hearing this piece performed by this Russian pianist, Kozhukhin? He was very tall, thin and lanky. Compared to the conduct, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who was rather short, Kozhukhin appeared to be giant with arms unusually long for his body. And his face looked as if he were the grown up baby on the Gerber baby food bottle.
And hats off to Andrés Orozco-Estrada who meticulously and precisely followed the pianist. I’ve never seen a conductor so actively working to let the pianist lead the orchestra.
Yes, the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 was luscious and delicious and everything one could ever desire in a performance from the San Francisco Symphony. The clarinet solos in the Adagio movement were to die for. But this pianist… He blew me away. His performance was a spiritual rebirth.
The encore was a piano transcription (Giovanni Sgambati) of Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Me’lodie from Orpheo ed Euridice: Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Here is a link to an iTunes recording of Sarah Chang performing it (violin with piano accompaniment.) Here’s a link of Josh Bell performing it.
Below is a video of Nelson Freire performing the piece on piano which feels terribly rushed to me. None of these performances reflect the delicacy of Denis Kozhukhin’s astonishing performance.