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 Rachmaninovs transcription of Mendelssohns Midsummer Nights 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 Schumanns 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 Kissins 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 Pletnevs wilfulness and Apekishevas 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 composers intentions but even painted a vivid sound-picture of chicks breaking free of their shells. The other was Kissins playing of Liszts 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 Kissins CD of Pictures at an Exhibition here