Titanic pianism: Evgeny Kissin plays Beethoven and Rachmaninov

evgenykissin_wide-9aa53798ae987906571102878d8a12936652197c-s900-c85You know you’re at a special concert when the social areas around the concert hall, the bars and cafés, are abuzz with a very tangible sense of excitement? “When did you last hear him?”  “I hear he is magnificent….. ” Add to that an audience populated by “important people” of the music world, including pianist Menahem Pressler (now in his 90’s and still playing) – it promised to be an exceptional evening.

It’s over 20 years since I last saw Evgeny Kissin live. That concert, the first solo piano recital in the history of the Proms, was legendary for all sorts of reasons – coruscating performances of works by Haydn, Liszt and Chopin and no less than seven encores to a record-breaking audience (over 6000). In the course of his career, he has been criticized by some for his rather cool manner, smooth perfectionism, and style over substance, but there’s never been any doubt about his consistent dedication to his art and artistry. Listen to his recording of Chopin’s Berceuse and you hear refinement in every opalescent note and multi-hued filigree passage: Kissin has musical intellect and, more importantly, he has soul.

No longer the shock-haired wunderkind, he is now a mature artist in his mid-40s; he has written a slim volume of thoughtful memoirs and has married his childhood sweetheart. He’s still got the phenomenal technique, but his stage presence is noticeably more relaxed (much smiling during his curtain calls). Yet his style and demeanour hark back to an earlier era, including the way he dresses (evening suit, black tie, even a cummerbund – a rarity at concerts these days): I think audiences really love this – despite attempts by other artists to break down the “us and them” barriers of the concert stage – because it reminds us of the huge sense of occasion a concert by a pianist of this calibre creates and preserves the mystique of the virtuoso performer.

In the programme notes, Kissin was described as a “titan among pianists”, suggesting both physical and metaphoric presence. In an article last year, The Economist billed him as “one of the world’s greatest living musicians”. Both statements are of course subjective – while also being true. He is “great”, in the sense of possessing an ineffable multi-faceted talent which makes the reviewer’s job so hard – for how can one truly describe what he does?

In keeping with his “old school” stage demeanor, he does not indulge in showy piano pyrotechnics nor flashy gesture for the sake of gesture. His mannerisms may be restrained but his playing is full of commitment and a passion which transcends romanticism: it burns with a hypnotic intensity.

Beethoven’s mightly Hammerklavier is one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, never undertaken lightly. In interviews Kissin has stated that he felt a certain maturity – which he now has – was necessary to tackle this monumental work (other, younger pianists are not so modest…..). It certainly gave full rein to Kissin’s magisterial powers, not just his technique but his musical intelligence too. He made the infamously difficult opening of the Hammerklavier – a rapid leap of an octave and a half taken in the left hand alone – look easy (and indeed the entire programme!) and launched into the first movement with a heroic commitment wrought in myriad sound. This work is so pianistic, its nickname a constant reminder that it must be played on a piano (and Beethoven was alert to rapid developments in piano design at the start of the nineteenth century: he knew a new instrument could produce the effects he demands in his score), yet also rich in orchestral textures and voicings, all revealed so clearly, so musically by Kissin. His pianistic attack may be direct, but his fortissimos never compromise on quality of sound, and his edges are smoothly honed. But above all of this, it was his pacing and natural rubato which captivated: a clear through-narrative combined with interpretative spontaneity gave this large-scale sonata a fantasy-like character, yet with a rigorous sense of the work’s overall architecture – even in the Adagio Sostentuto, where time was suspended for a movement played with an intense almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, yet managed with all the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality and strikingly dramatic contrasts.

The second half was all Rachmaninov Preludes, a selection from Opp 23 and Op 32, works with which Kissin is fully at ease. As in the Beethoven structures were fully understood, while sound was sculpted, grand gestures deftly chiseled, delicate motifs etched in filigree touch and a gentle haze of sound. We felt the composer’s emotional depth, his yearning and nostalgia, without a hint of false sentiment or surface artifice.

Four encores afforded more pianistic marvels – a crepuscular, haunting étude by Scriabin (Op 2, No. 1), Kissin’s own vertiginously virtuosic Toccata (proof that he could have been an excellent boogie woogie pianist as well!), another favourite Rachmaninov Prelude (in C minor), played with as much energy as if he was beginning the concert, and Tchaikovsky’s Méditation. He probably would have played more, such was his eagerness to return to the piano at each curtain call, but regretfully many of us had last trains to catch.


(photo: FBroede/IMG Artists)