At 23, Denis Kozhukhin won the Queen Elisabeth Competition, a turning point for the Russian pianist, who later acquired Belgian nationality. He is eagerly looking forward to his appearance at the streaming edition of the Flagey Piano Days.
Denis Kozhukhin was born in 1986 in Nizhny Novgorod, which in the Soviet years was known as Gorky. He started playing the piano at age five and because of his undeniable talent, he moved to Madrid at age fourteen, where he studied at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía from 2000 to 2007. There, he received his diploma from the hands of the Spanish queen. A few years later, he won First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition, the real ticket to a generous career as an international concert pianist. The cosmopolitan existence of hopping between concert hotspots came to an abrupt end in March 2020.
The pianist is very enthusiastic about the fact that his familiar life is gradually getting back on track and he is breaking a lance for the sector that is doing everything in its power to share his ravishing interpretations of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Grieg, Bartók and many others. “A musician without an audience is sad,” he says when we call him in Bilbao, where he will play four times in two days, for four hundred listeners each time. “Whether it is for a limited live audience or for an online festival, we passionate professional musicians are simply thrilled to be able to do our job again. Something is always better than nothing.”
How bad was the initial shock?
Denis Kozhukhin: It felt like a big hammer falling from nowhere. After the shock there was disbelief, and then even rage for a while. As a concert pianist you are used to living to the rhythm of your schedule, and suddenly it was empty. That is why I have a deep admiration for everyone who does everything possible and impossible to organise concerts again. It is not easy, because travelling is also a nightmare. It takes four Covid-tests to go somewhere and then return home, and of course you have to take all the other measures into account.
Was your childhood tough given the many lonely hours in front of your piano and your training abroad?
Kozhukhin: Not at all, people tend to exaggerate the difficulties and lack of free time of young piano talents. Sure, I had a special childhood. But in my eyes it was comparable to someone who is preparing for a professional sports career. I had to practise a lot and make sacrifices, but I never had the feeling that I missed out on anything. I also just love to play the piano. So I would not want to change anything about my childhood. My parents never put pressure on me. It was my choice, even when, as a 14-year-old, I went to Madrid without them. That was a great learning experience, but it was only possible because my parents were my first teachers.
Is it true that your mother once tied you to a chair with a scarf so that she could give piano lessons without being distracted?
Kozhukhin: Yes, at least according to my father, because I swear I do not remember it myself. My mother gave private piano lessons in our small flat. There was no space to put me in a separate room. I guess I was disturbing her when she intervened with that scarf. (Laughs) I was quite social. I still am. I owe that also to the nine years I was in my father's choir. Once my voice had broken as a teenager, my voice was not strong enough to become a singer, but I still find a choir one of the most stimulating learning environments for young people. You work together with other children and learn to keep your ears open at the same time. Especially if you then become a solo instrumentalist, that experience is not to be sniffed at. Because of my love for chamber music, I still cooperate with other musicians.
The theme of the Flagey Piano Days is “the reverie”, loosely inspired by Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, who would have celebrated his 200th birthday this year. How did you incorporate that into your programme?
Kozhukhin: By putting together a programme around children. They are our future, and in these extraordinary times, are we not constantly thinking about the future? Specifically, I chose composers who reminisce about their early years. In “Kinderszenen”, Robert Schumann evokes impressions and scenes of children's everyday life. In “Childhood Memories”, Alexey Shor wrote a kind of autobiography of his early years. You can hear, as it were, his first dance steps, laughter and memories of his mother passing by. With “Sonatine”, I am also performing a masterpiece by Ravel. A sonatina is a sonata in a simplified form that is also suitable for children. Yet with this short piece, Ravel succeeded in creating a musically very ingenious piano work. I would have liked to link it to “Sonatine pour Yvette” by Montsalvatge, which was also composed specifically for children. But that, like Tchaikovsky's “Album for the Youth”, has been omitted because the original programme had to be shortened.
What have your own children taught you and what are your dreams for them?
Kozhukhin: The youngest two are still only one, but my six-year-old son is already a worthy pianist himself. (Laughs) They taught me to see the world again from a more naive and pure perspective, from the child's point of view. That was a life-changing experience. I will probably do for them what my parents did for me and my brother (also a gifted pianist, Ed.). I would never force them to become musicians, but if they have enough talent and want to persevere, I will be a proud father. On the other hand, the current Covid crisis shows once again how fragile the world and life are. Music is not the only thing that can make you happy or successful.
How do you look back on winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition, now over ten years ago?
Kozhukhin: With lots of gratitude. It turned out to be a turning point, both an arrival and a start. It was the last competition I took part in and the most important one I won. After that, the real artist life started. What I was asked to do for the competition – rehearse a large repertoire in a short space of time – then became a permanent feature of my life, along with travelling, meetings with conductors and orchestras, and so on. Moreover, my successful introduction to Brussels meant that I stayed in Belgium for a while. I liked living in the political and cultural centre of Europe. If you travel a lot, Brussels is the best city in Europe. Everything is close by. The flight and train connections are great, as is the atmosphere, the multicultural vibe and the landscape – I lived in La Hulpe. After a while, I moved to Lausanne for professional reasons, but when I return, it is invariably like going home. You can take that literally, because when I lived here, I was able to become a Belgian citizen. Even though it is my second passport, I am very proud of it. Moreover, Studio 4 at Flagey, where I am now artist in residence, remains one of the best acoustic halls in the world. Last summer I gave my first public concert there after the lockdown.
So, when the Belgian football team plays against Russia, you support...
Kozhukhin: (Laughs) It happened to me once at a rehearsal and I remember that it was quite difficult to choose sides. So I do not do that: whoever wins, it is always good!
Flagey Piano Days
27/2, 19.00, www.flagey.be