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Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
Piano Concerto in G Major (1929) [22:00]
George GERSHWIN (1898 – 1937)
Piano Concerto in F Major (1925) [33:30]
Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major (1929) [19.25]
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Kazuki Yamada
rec. 2017, Victoria Hall, Geneva
PENTATONE PTC5186620 SACD [74.55]

Denis Kozhukhin won First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2010 and has since established himself as one of the leading pianists of his generation.  For this recording, he is joined by the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under the baton of its Principal Guest Conductor, Kazuki Yamada, pairing the two Ravel piano concertos with Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F.

The programme notes include a famous photo taken in New York during a birthday party for Ravel in March 1928, showing Ravel seated at the piano and Gershwin standing over him.  Shortly after this photo was taken, Ravel began to write his two piano concertos; he had already begun work on the Concerto in G Major when he received a commission from Paul Wittgenstein to compose a piano concerto for the left hand and decided to write them both simultaneously.  While both concertos make extensive use of jazz, they are very different in character: the G Major is an elegant, cheerful work, while the Concerto for the Left Hand is darker and more sombre.

Kozhukhin and Yamada combine to great effect in the G Major Piano Concerto.  Following the opening whip crack, they create light, airy sonorities replete with bright trumpet fanfares.  Kozhukhin captures the bright, cheery character of the opening movement to perfection and brings athleticism and rhythmic dynamism to Ravel’s brilliant toccata figurations.  The jazz and Spanish elements are synthesized beautifully and the playing from the orchestra’s harp and woodwind in the section immediately preceding the cadenza is pristine. Kozhukhin’s performance of the cadenza is very polished, with light, crystalline trills providing a decorative background against the rippling left hand.  In the Satie-esque slow movement, he does an excellent job sustaining the line of the slow-moving melody. He uses expressive rubato to good effect, although on occasion the tone sounded a little forced. The final duet with the cor anglais is magical and a moment of heart-felt chamber music intimacy. Kozhukhin dispatches the passagework in the final Presto with brilliance and élan, while the orchestra’s woodwind produce vivid, grotesque interjections.  Kozhukhin conjures up nicely varied textures in this movement, and he and Yamada finish the concerto in exhilarating style.

The Concerto for the Left Hand opens with the orchestra’s double basses and contrabassoon groping their way through the darkness of the Stygian depths.  Kozhukhin has a big technique and he navigates the enormous demands of the opening cadenza with fleet-fingered aplomb. There is wonderful layering of sound and dazzling finger-work and he succeeds in injecting an epic sweep and grandeur into the music.  There is excellent interplay between soloist and orchestra in the quicker section of the concerto with its martial music and a range of contrasting textures and sonorities. Kozhukhin’s handling of the technically demanding final cadenza is a barnstorming, virtuoso tour de force and the recording is worth getting just to hear this.  My only minor reservation is that I found the music a little episodic as the movement progressed and would have liked soloist and orchestra to have more of an eye to the bigger picture. Notwithstanding this, there is great playing here from Kozhukhin and the OSR.

The other work on the disc is Gershwin’s Concerto in F which was written in 1925 immediately after the huge success of Rhapsody in Blue.  Gershwin followed the usual three concerto movement format in this work and provided his own orchestration - something he had not done for Rhapsody in Blue.  Kozhukhin’s and Yamada’s recording of this work is hugely enjoyable and one of the best performances I have heard. The opening of the first movement Allegro with its Charleston rhythms is arresting and invigorating, as we are propelled with enormous energy into the jazz infused world of the 1920’s. Kozhukhin brings an easy improvisatory quality to the opening piano entry with its sultry Blues rhythms.  There is an excellent rapport between soloist and orchestra, with Yamada doing a superb job ensuring that the orchestra responds flexibly to the various shifts of mood and tempo. Kozhukhin attacks the rhythms with relish, bringing out the brash exuberance and brilliance of Gershwin’s piano writing. In the slow movement, Stephen Jeandheur’s gives a soulful, highly atmospheric rendition of the opening trumpet solo, conjuring up the vista of a night time Manhattan.  Kozhukhin brings an infectious swing to the funky Jazz rhythms which is very appealing. Yamada and the OSR conjure up an adrenaline fuelled opening to the Allegro agitato finale. Kozhukhin’s brings a dry kinetic touch to the rat-a-tat piano figurations and injects rhythmic momentum and vibrancy into the proceedings. The exchanges between the soloist and the orchestra’s percussion and brass sections are tightly coordinated. Soloist and orchestra join forces to give us groovy, big band tunes reminiscent of the Rhapsody in Blue.  Overall, this is music making of the highest calibre and it is impossible not to be swept along with the enthusiasm of the playing.

These are front rank performances from Kozhukhin and the OSR and they compare extremely well with others.  Kozhukhin gives a first-rate performance of Ravel’s G Major Concerto but he cannot quite match the extraordinary artistry of Michelangeli in his 1957 recording of this work; Michelangeli and Gracis set an extraordinarily high bar with a performance which has never been surpassed.  François and Clutyens also have the edge in their performance of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Kozhukhin excels in the Gershwin Concerto and I have not heard this work played better. This recording compares well with Previn’s famous recording with the LSO, although the LSO bring more of an uninhibited jazz feeling to the work than the OSR.

Overall, there is some exceptionally fine playing here and this recording is highly recommended.    

Robert Beattie  

 




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