Evgeny Kissin

Piano Sonata in E flat, D568
32 Variations in C minor, WoO80
Klavierstücke, Op.118
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op.22

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 5 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

During the day of the concert, I discovered that if you take recorded performances of Chopin’s Mazurkas, the one closest to the average of all of them is Evgeny Kissin’s. So if, in the future, you could program a computer to play the piano convincingly to imitate a concert pianist, it could sound like him. The miracle of Kissin, much enhanced by seeing him live (though apparently his recording sessions consist of flawless identical takes of complete works) is of course that he is not a machine, but a man. For his fans, this is wonder enough; for non-fans, this may still enhance our listening. By removing any sense of technical effort or strain, there is nothing between the music and us. And the marvel of Kissin’s absolute security reminds us of the marvel of the composition played. At other times, if you have not come to see Kissin’s keyboard acrobatics, as you would go to a circus act, you feel that your inability to escape his relentless precision actually removes the meaning from the music. Not ‘nothing between music and listener’, just ‘nothing’.

In music of the classical period, form conveys a good portion of the emotional content and small flaws are much more visible in the thinner textures; so Kissin’s detachment and accuracy were seen in their best light. The lapidary aloofness of his Schubert allowed us to admire this early work, not be irritated by the occasional creakiness of the composition. It was very reminiscent of Michelangeli’s approach to this work, a repudiation of sentiment in order to foreground structure. The Beethoven was stupendous in its precision; never can its many notes have been played with such evenness. The harshness in tone above mezzo-forte was curious, however, especially for an artist who has spoken with such admiration about the ‘golden sound’ of Emil Gilels.

But in the Romantic period, flow, texture and rubato are all much more explicitly giving the music its meaning. Even if Brahms is the most Classical of all Romantics, and late Brahms the most compressed and philosophical of the composer’s work, his music is indescribably strange when played without give or tenderness. This was not a consciously fragmented approach, such as I recently ascribed to Hamelin; this was Kissin’s remoteness from a spontaneous emotional involvement with the music. The Second Piece sounded contrived, the Ballade (No.3) perfunctory, the last Intermezzo simply incomprehensible.

The finale of the concert was ritualistic. A deliberately short second half concluded with some virtuoso Chopin, to whip up the audience’s applause and induce such familiar encores as Carmen Fantasy and Liszt’s Liebestraum, among which Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song was wonderfully fleet in its immaculate filigree.

Kissin’s detractors should bear in mind that neither they nor anyone else can emulate him, and that he can fill a concert hall, including the upper tier and chairs on stage, even on a Monday night. But he is a prodigy who has continued his career and continues to possess a prodigious technique, yet is otherwise curiously unchanged.

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