Denis Kozhukhin knows well the stereotypes associated with Russian pianists. “People think that if you’re Russian, then you are great with Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and probably Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but you have no idea of Beethoven, Haydn or Schubert, and you’d never be able to do a good Mozart concerto,” he said. “That’s completely not correct. This picture of a Russian pianist banging the hell out of a piano, that’s nuts.”
In his repertoire of some 35 works for piano and orchestra, Kozhukhin acknowledges that many of them are Russian concertos. Born in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, he was raised on Russian music: “We had a huge LP collection, and I grew up listening to recordings of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich,” he said in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post. But he also loves to perform works by Haydn and even those of Handel: “I like to play Handel because I think his suites are of equal quality to the Bach suites or partitas, but for some reason, you have a bunch of concerts everyday where you can find Bach but not Handel.” If all that is not enough, the pianist also delves into contemporary compositions by Pierre Boulez and others. “I don’t like to set limitations,” he said. “I simply like too many things.”
However, when he returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for concerts Dec. 14-16 and 19 under guest conductor Jaap van Zweden, Kozhukhin will be heard in a distinctly Russian work: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the most popular and romantic pieces for piano and orchestra.
The music of his homeland still commands an almost visceral pull on the pianist. “It’s almost physical. You can feel that, you can feel the air in the music,” he said. “Every time I play [a Russian concerto], I feel like I’m smelling my country!”
Video from Pentatone Records: