For ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ Denis Kozhukhin turns a piano into an orchestra

"You can go to concerts and sit there for two hours and not hear a wrong note, but it can be boring and empty," says Denis Kozhukhin. "So this thing of playing wrong notes, it shouldn’t become an obsession.”

Marco Borggreve

When the celebrated concert pianist Denis Kozhukhin makes his Symphony Center Presents debut on June 12, he won’t be accompanied by an orchestra. When needed, however, he’ll create one. That will be particularly crucial for his last piece, George Gershwin’s beloved Rhapsody in Blue. 

In 1955, as the initially pilloried piece was enjoying a critical and commercial revival, Leonard Bernstein offered something of a backhanded compliment. “Rhapsody in Blue,” he told the Atlantic magazine, “is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way, except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections, and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a 12-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It’s still Rhapsody in Blue.”

Most often rendered as a sonic tapestry of flutes, oboes, trumpets, violins and all manner of other symphonic instruments, with pianistic interjections, the jazz-influenced classic, in Kozhukhin’s magic hands, will be stripped down to its core, with only the performer’s imagination and deft touch to give the old tune new life.

“I had a funny story with one of the American festivals where I was supposed to be performing this version,” Kozhukhin says by phone during a recent tour stop overseas. “I sent them the program, and they answered back that there is no such version for solo piano. And I said, ‘Of course there is, because I’m playing it.’ And they said, ‘No, it doesn’t exist, we looked in the archives.’ I said, ‘Yes, it does exist.’ So I actually sent them the front page and the last page with all the information of the piece. They didn’t know there was a solo version, and they thought I was making it up, or maybe it was my own version. But it’s Gershwin’s original.”

The Russian-born Kozhukhin, who now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland, first fell in love with the widely known orchestral version during childhood; for years, he has played it with numerous ensembles around the world. Of course, there’s not always a full symphony around when you need one, so he thought: Why let that be a limiting factor?

“For me, the piano is an instrument with infinite possibility, sound, force, colors, imitation. It’s all about imagination, so all the ideas are first born in your head, in your ears.”  — Denis Kozhukhin

Realizing he had the solo score at home, Kozhukhin eventually added it to his recital repertoire. From a purely artistic standpoint, he says, playing it sans orchestra is “very enjoyable.” As with any acoustic rendition of a well-known composition, the power of suggestion plays a big role.

“You have to make the piano into an orchestra, which is quite challenging, but it’s really pleasant,” he says. “For me, the piano is an instrument with infinite possibility, sound, force, colors, imitation. It’s all about imagination, so all the ideas are first born in your head, in your ears. Of course, you have to master the piano in order to know how to make it respond to your ideas, but that’s why we work our whole life. There are pianists who vibrate on the piano the same as violinists vibrate their strings. Technically, it doesn’t do anything, but it changes the way you touch the key, the way you deal with a sound to share. It’s about the weight distribution, it’s the attack, it’s the use of the pedal. It’s all of those together. But the more imagination you have, the more this instrument can respond.

“My teachers very often would tell me, ‘This has to sound like a trumpet, so do this. This has to sound like a voice, so do this.’ Piano is a bit, not deceiving, but somehow it’s like magic tricks. Because on a wind instrument, you blow, and there is a sound, so physically you are connected. If you play a string instrument, you have a bow in your hand, and there is no way to trick anyone. On the piano, it’s a lot of convincing people [to hear certain sounds]. And if you do it well enough, people start to believe.”

Kozhukhin has plenty of believers and makes new converts wherever he goes, thanks to performances that have been described as “spellbinding,” “mesmerizing” and “technically flawless.”

“Even in a day when keyboard virtuosos are thick on the ground,” the Chicago Tribune once declared, “Kozhukhin is special.”

While hitting all the right notes of course is always preferable, Kozhukhin is never fixated on achieving technical perfection. Much more important, he says, are the musicality and emotionality of any given piece.

“We work all our lives, and we study like crazy for perfection. But what is perfection in music? What is perfection in life? Of course, you can play a concert without hitting a single wrong note, and I really admire people who can do that. It’s an achievement, of course, and this is what we all aim for. Obviously, if you have too many wrong notes, it can kind of destroy the whole picture. You can go to concerts and sit there for two hours and not hear a wrong note, but it can be boring and empty. So this thing of playing wrong notes, it’s really overjudged sometimes, and it shouldn’t become an obsession.”

In driving that point home, Kozhukhin invokes no less an authority than Ludwig van Beethoven.

“To play a wrong note is insignificant,” the great composer allegedly said. “To play without passion is inexcusable.”