Photograph of Evgeny Kissin (© Ï 2001 EK)

Bach transcribed Busoni
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564
Schumann
Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.11
Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Evgeny Kissin is the only pianist I have ever reviewed whose virtuosity truly deserves to be called dazzling. As a technician of the keyboard he is probably unequalled in the world. Yet for me he is a pianist to admire more than to like. His playing can be soulless, impersonal, almost as if it is all too easy, as if the element of struggle, which is often what makes art humane, is quite missing.
Kissin appears to have only two gears – the one superhumanly technically gifted and dramatic, the other self-consciously lyrical, as his first two encores respectively demonstrated: The Lark (Glinka/Balakirev) and Rachmaninov’s transcription of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ’Scherzo’. It is not that he necessarily plays to the crowd, it is as if he only achieves an appearance of depth, not depth itself.
Bach was unfailingly well-judged, steel-fingered in the ’Toccata’, measured in the ’Adagio’, and pellucidly clear in the ’Fugue’, yet the last element of mystery was absent. It was wizardry, not poetry. The same was true of Schumann. We felt the driving force of the ’Allegro’, and the piano sang with extraordinary beauty in the ’Aria’, but Kissin seemed unsympathetic to Schumann’s vulnerability, and that personal weakness is very important in this composer. The ’Scherzo’ was unsmiling, not witty, the ’Finale’ bombastic, ungraceful even.
The more ingenuous Mussorgsky was an ideal vehicle for Kissin’s talent. The piece is never truly virtuosic, but the technical difficulties arise from some immensely awkward writing. Kissin was able, of course, to make light of these problems – to play ’Limoges’ with a transparent, fleet lightness, to take ’Great Gate of Kiev’ fast enough to turn the tolling bells into hammer blows. It was, overall, a strongly characterised reading, head and shoulders above Pletnev’s wilfulness and Apekisheva’s modest humanity, to name two recent London performances. ’Gnomus’ was played with daring staccato, the ’Tuileries’ with an ideal playfulness the orchestrated versions cannot match – a real vindication of the original piano version. It may be that the very speed of ’Kiev’ robbed it of some of its dignity, or the ease with which ’Baba-Yaga came to Kissin made it less menacing, more hectoring, and it was certainly the case that the (correct) slow speed of ’The Old Castle’ made it ultimately drag. This was a performance that was thought-provoking and sparkling by turns, strong and decisive in execution.
Two moments of this concert were touched with rare greatness. One was the ’Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’, which Kissin took at an extraordinary pace, that not only sounded appropriate to the composer’s intentions but even painted a vivid sound-picture of chicks breaking free of their shells. The other was Kissin’s playing of Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase as a final encore. Performers of Liszt are frequently attracted by his forests of notes, and often become lost in the impenetrable undergrowth. Not so Kissin who showed that the most demanding music is best played at its most effortless, its structure and melodic line crystal-clear no matter how thick the texture. Horowitz might have done as much, but no performer today can equal Kissin on this territory.
  • Read a review of Kissin’s CD of Pictures at an Exhibition here

 

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