Kissin’s Boston recital moves from cool flame to artistic fire

April 23, 2013
By David Wright

Evgeny Kissin performed a recital program Sunday at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston.

At about the two-thirds mark in Evgeny Kissin’s piano recital Sunday afternoon, the performance seemed to turn an invisible corner, and the concert became the kind of event people had packed Symphony Hall to witness.

Prior to that, listening to dreary run-throughs of sonatas by Haydn and Beethoven and two impromptus by Schubert, one had to wonder whether this pianistic Elvis had left the building—or never entered it.

Then, as the limpid melody and surging bass of Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 90, No. 3, soared through the hall, it was like encountering an old friend—that friend whose singing tone and deep musical insight we used to call “beyond his years,” and now just call “beyond belief.”

At 41, with his child-prodigy years far behind him, Kissin now appears to be trying to escape the Van Cliburn syndrome: the piano superstar who perpetually performs the same few Romantic favorites.

But on Sunday afternoon, his playing was truly convincing only in the repertoire he’s most associated with: a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody and the most Romantic of the four Schubert impromptus on the program.

Kissin has always been known as a champion of tradition, but one tradition he could have left alone was that of opening a program of Romantic music with a poorly informed performance of an 18th-century sonata, either as a finger-stretcher or a “historical” reference point.

In Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major, Hob. XVI:49, this pianist of matchless technical fluency sounded clumsy and awkward, seemingly at a loss to understand Haydn’s musical argument.  (Perhaps his penance should be ten hours of listening to Haydn string quartets.)

He was able neither to lighten and focus his thick piano tone nor to get on board Haydn’s quicksilver train of thought, with the result that, in the fast outer movements, nearly all of the master’s surprises and flashes of inspiration passed by unmarked.

An adagio e cantabile by Haydn is not the same as a Chopin nocturne, but one wouldn‘t know it from watching this pianist waving his body on the bench and gazing heavenward, as if trying to squeeze Romantic juice out of a firm Classical fruit.

Among Haydn’s many discoveries was the kind of expressive major-minor harmony later cultivated by Schubert, and Kissin gratefully fastened on Schubertian moments in the sonata’s second and third movements.

On the other hand, a late Beethoven sonata offers many opportunities to the Romantically-inclined interpreter.  The C minor Sonata, Op. 111, offers fewer of them than some of its siblings, but Kissin successfully seized on what was there.

In the first movement, if he seemed stumped by the disjointed opening pages, he definitely “got” the part about Allegro con brio ed appassionato, delivering a muscular, satisfying performance with just the right balance of control and impetuousness.

He found less to hold on to in the empyrean realms of the closing variations.  The theme was very slow but not serene, as the pianist couldn’t resist tugging at the tempo and suggesting alien notes of passion or anxiety.  This urge to “interpret” interfered with the organic growth of the next two variations, although just what that interpretation was wasn’t clear.

On the other hand, an overly respectful approach to the fast variation in jerky dotted rhythm not only robbed that section of its wild and crazy character, but left the dreamy, drifting music that followed without a comic foil to contrast with.  The gentle return to earth in the closing bars would have had more effect if what preceded it had gotten further off the ground.

Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor, Op. 142, No. 1, resembles the Haydn and Beethoven works on this program with its volatile moods and its juxtaposition of marked, rhythmic material with liquid trills and arpeggios.  As in the Haydn, Kissin’s rather unfocused rendering used rubato for local effect, but lacked an overall sense of direction.

The B-flat major Impromptu, Op. 142, No. 3, is one of Schubert’s most charming creations, a theme and variations full of dance rhythms, felicitous inventions, and graceful Biedermeier sentiment.  How can it miss?  Kissin showed how, with a surprisingly bland traversal of the piece—actually, let’s say it, a shockingly bad performance for an artist who has shown he can light up the room with a Chopin waltz.

And then came the G-flat major Impromptu, and with it everything one could wish for in terms of deep feeling, balance of voices, singing tone, timing, range of tone color and mood, passion, tenderness, and a long arc of expression.

What happened?  Better not to ask, just to hope for more.

Kissin closed the Schubert group with the Impromptu in A-flat major, Op. 90, No. 4, and here the results were mixed.  He played the skittering main theme a little out of time, shortening the long note of each phrase, which didn’t make the theme’s many repetitions any more welcome.  On the other hand, he vividly projected all the middle section’s moods, from urgent to reflective.

Closing the scheduled program with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor, Kissin was not just effective, he played like a man let out of jail.

Back on his home turf, the Russian-born virtuoso was master of all, laughing at the piece’s impossible technical demands as he poured on the fire and drama.  No forced “interpretation” here, just a sure sense of the character of every bar and how to get there.

If Kissin somewhat slighted this piece’s tragic side in favor of passion and athleticism, it was hard to blame him, one felt such relief at hearing him in top form at last.

Reviews don’t normally linger on encores, but the center of gravity of this recital had shifted so markedly toward the end that when the Liszt was over one felt as though the pianist was just getting started.

Kissin eventually offered no fewer than five encores, although he made the audience work for them, clapping their hands raw as he returned to the stage repeatedly, and molto adagio, for his very formal bows.

The encores were: a Chopinesque rendering of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice; a swashbuckling Transcendental Etude in F minor by Liszt; Liszt’s fanciful arrangement of Schubert’s song The Trout; Chopin’s fiery Prelude No. 24 in D minor; and a hilarious, breakneck performance of Beethoven’s Rondo in G major, “Rage Over a Lost Penny.”

These colorful items prolonged the recital a good 45 minutes or so, but it was worth missing one’s dinner reservation to hear more Kissin Unchained.

Evgeny Kissin performs in Washington Wednesday, Chicago on Sunday and Carnegie Hall May 3 and 19.

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