Passionate Probity: A Recital by Nikolay Khozyainov

In what soon evolved as a marathon display of keyboard prowess, Russian pianist Nikolay Khozyainov (b. 1992) quite overwhelmed a beguiled audience at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, Saturday, April 6 in a program of Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninov that might have set new standards for passion and probity, thoughtful poetry and dazzling virtuosity.  With the final pages of the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, with its tolling bells and falling fifth, the inflamed auditors at this stupendous reading clamored for more evidence of this youthful artist’s digital arsenal, to which he responded with no less than four encores.

Khozyainov began with a Chopin group: the Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 and two Nocturnes, those in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1 and in C Minor, and that in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1. The Ballade in F Major (1839) rather indicated – by virtue of its dualistic emotional tenor, serene and then violently tumultuous – the polar character of Khozyainov’s interpretations, which would gather the full range of affects and effects which his Steinway commands. At first poised and pastoral, the F Major Ballade swayed and lulled us in reverie; then, suddenly, Chopin unleashed from what might have been a nocturne in unison octaves a feral storm in A Minor, made ardently vehement by Khozyainov’s capacity for controlled explosions. The bel cantoinfluence from Italian opera rang forth, as did passing elements of the waltz and heroic calls to arms, Chopin’s innate hymns to his native land. 

For the two Nocturnes, Khozyainov maintained a sense of dramatic tension requisite to their minor-key modality as well as to their interior torment. The C-sharp Minor (1836) projects a personal anguish that the middle section, a declamation of heroic intent, fails to alleviate. With its ternary structure, the music could easily have been entitled “ballade,” given its tale of somber gravitas. Khozyainov imparted to its recitative cadenza his own sense of rubato cantilena implicit in good Chopin style. No less dismal in its opening landscape, the C Minor Nocturne (1841) sighed deeply in its heavy bass sonorities and middle voices. Khozyainov colored the central section in C Major into a stunning chorale rife with hope. But the triplets and shifting chromatic harmony ominously presaged a return to the gloom of C Minor, now at twice the speed in equally anxious accompaniment. Certainly, the martial character of the piece as conveyed by Khozyainov imposed a dark vista, its visual impact akin to a dire scene from Ingmar Bergman. 

Beethoven’s 1805 Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” carries its own mystique for Romantic temperament and tragic defiance. At the time of creation, the work encompassed the full spectrum of the instrument’s range, while at the same time incorporating the composer’s penchant for arpeggiated figures, sudden fortes, liberated trills, menacing tremolos, and dramatic pauses that might unleash equally pungent or delicate harmony, in this case the Neapolitan flattened second degree of the scale. Like the Fifth Symphony, its four-note motif of movement one, Allegro assai, has assumed an emotional life apart, and a great interpreter can make its cumulative effect a monument to the creative will. Khozyainov proved himself well worthy as an exponent of Beethoven’s intent: the dotted rhythm and mysterious trill, answered in varying degrees of the F Minor scale, assumed a potency that enmeshed everything it encountered, so even the A-flat secondary theme could not feel free of menace. Everyone held their breath for the final crash to the coda, the explosion of which never fails to transfix us in its tragic declamation. How beautifully contrasted, the second movement, a D-flat Major theme and four variations, surrendered to repose and cosmic order, yielding only at the coda to the impulse, a crashing diminished seventh, to the emotional eddies of the Allegro ma non troppo – Presto last movement.  Khozyainov pursued the relentless 16thnotes in demonized rapture, a moto perpetuo of emotion that soon restates its martial fury in the dominant minor key. If the lunges and plunges of emotion had not yet exhausted us, the excoriating devil’s or gypsy dance of the Presto catapulted us to the abyss, and we could no longer distinguish – or care to – aesthetic pleasure or emotional devastation. The performance might have been rendered by a young Claudio Arrau, and that says something. 

The one work on the second-half of the program, Rachmaninov’s 1908 Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28, nods in debt to the Faust Symphony of Franz Liszt, his three-movement homage to the legend as inscribed by Goethe. Like Liszt, Rachmaninov fashions his thematic structures dramatically and emotionally — akin to William Blake –– that the human soul embodies a “marriage between Heaven and Hell.” Most poignant in Khozyainov’s reading came the cantilena aria – right out of the Totensinsel– in the Gretchen, second movement. The last movement Allegro molto seemed endless –- just as the final, descending scale of the Gretchen movement — groping and blustering, filled with sound and fury. The prolixity of movement and modal declamations could achieve some sense of unity only by the power of Khozyainov’s intensity. Tolling bells, the Dies Irae, all the Rachmaninov tropes for destruction and salvation, falling fifths in rage and the despair of gnashing teeth, announced Faust’s catastrophe in blazing colors. And what immediately ensued as pianist Khozyainov’s San Jose apotheosis.

Even the set of four encores Khozyainov proffered in response to sheer adulation – and the clapping metamorphosed from individual jubilation to a unison, palm-smacked chant — might be construed as a minor piano sonata in itself –- Liszt’s Grand Galop chromatique, Satie’s first Gymnopedie, Busoni’s Elegy –- minus Busoni and more Khozyainov — on Bizet’s Carmen, and Khozyainov’s own fantasy on themes from Star Wars– an opening Allegro molto, thenAdagio, Scherzo,and Allegro con fuoco.  

Recalling this recital, I’m reminded of the apocryphal anecdote of Goethe, his just having heard the Beethoven Fifth Symphony: “When I reached for my hat, I couldn’t find my head.” 


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