Classic CD: The War Sonatas

By William Dart

CD cover: Prokofiev.
CD cover: Prokofiev.

Classic CD: PROKOFIEV - The War Sonatas (Onyx)
Stars: 5/5
Verdict: Russian pianist transmutes the dark pages of his country's history into a testament of courage.

Kozhukhin gives you the impression that the keys are scalding hot.It is difficult for us to imagine the grim sufferings of Russia during World War II. The anguish, hardships and resilience of the Russian people are there in the three War Sonatas that Prokofiev wrote between 1940-44, and are brilliantly played by Denis Kozhukhin on his new Onyx CD.

This is the recording debut of the young Russian, who won the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium; not surprisingly, it was his Prokofiev Second Concerto that clinched the deal.

Last year, Kozhukhin triumphed in Glasgow, delivering all five of the composer's concertos with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, navigating treacherous terrain with what one critic described as blithe bravura.

Tackling the War Sonatas, this pianist shows an assurance that makes blithe seem too easy a commendation.

Throughout, one can grasp the range of psychological and emotional layers in scores by a composer second only to Shostakovich in his love of irony.

The Sixth Sonata's Allegro moderato might be concealing a clutch of resistance marches, between stalwart fanfares.

The subsequent Allegretto takes us to the ballet, although the lightness here is anything but carefree after the issues raised by the first movement. Kozhukhin gives you the impression that the keys are scalding hot.

After catching all the nuances of the third movement's waltz, the closing Vivace might be drawing a character too sinister by far for the score of Cinderella that was occupying Prokofiev at the time.

The late Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who premiered the Seventh Sonata in 1943, wrote eloquently on the Eighth. For him it was like listening to the inexorable march of time; it may have been somewhat heavy to grasp, but that heaviness was like a tree laden with fruit.

Kozhukhin harvests this score to perfection. The ambling sweetness of the opening Andante dolce floats with just the right balance of courage and caution.

The Andante sognando - another of Prokofiev's expressive directions - is the very heart of the piece. Halfway between minuet and waltz, in the hands of Kozhukhin, its graceful Viennese touches seem to suggest a yearning for better times, past and future.

- NZ Herald

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