Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV903
Piano Sonata in D, K311
Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op.44
12 Romances, Op.21 – V: ‘Lilacs’
Prelude in A-minor, Op.32/8
Prelude in G-flat, Op.23/10
Etudes-Tableaux, Op.39 [selections]
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 15 March, 2023
The last time I heard Evgeny Kissin in a solo recital was here, at the Barbican, in 2019, a full year before Covid-chaos and three before the Ukraine war, the latter something the famously reserved Russian virtuoso has been very articulate about. His stage persona remains very much the same as it was since the teenage prodigy took the piano world by storm in the 1980s, a boy whose technical wizardry was unassailable. Now in his fifties, his courtly formality has mellowed, a bit, but he still radiates an old-fashioned, inscrutable mystique, a chip off the block of those turn-of-the-century (that is, nineteenth to twentieth) piano gods who once ruled the musical world.
This recital reminded me, however, that I am none the wiser about his preferred repertoire – I used to think it was Chopin, but I am now not so sure; he doesn’t quite channel the Liszt charisma; probably the privacy of Rachmaninov suits him best. These considerations were confirmed by his choice of programme, which started with two works miles away from Planet Steinway. I’ve never been too fussy about Bach on the modern piano, but the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is an exception. On the harpsichord this whirlwind of notes often sounds atonal, unfettered by the sort of resonance you get on a modern piano, even with Kissin’s ultra-light pedaling. It was certainly furious and dazzling but often it came across as chromatic plate-spinning rather than the epic, baroque display of deferred tonal gratification. Kissin didn’t rein in his style of engagement for a particularly angular take on Mozart. The first movement was certainly ‘con spirito’ but here the spirits were driven and over-dramatised rather than high and confident. Also his decision to play both of the first movement’s repeats made it more monumental than witty, and he seriously overstretched things in the following Andante.
Then, firmly in pianoforte territory, he went on to play Chopin’s mighty Polonaise in F-sharp minor in a way that I can only describe as weaponised, very possibly channelling his dismay over the war in Ukraine. He produced a colossal sound, the fury was palpable, the gentler middle section evoking Mahlerian bittersweet regrets. It was very impressive – and at times it almost made Chopin sound ugly.
Kissin devoted the second part to Rachmaninov, to mark the composer’s 150th-birthday (April 1), and in his choice of Preludes and the Op.39 Etudes-Tableaux, like all the great Rachmaninov players, he easily persuaded you that this was how the composer must have played his own music. Kissin has instant access to Rachmaninov’s unique brand of impressionism and completely gets how the composer transcends his own material, how a piece might start in the salon but, as in Narnia, can slip through a door to something much bigger. The music’s yearning quality was all the stronger for being understated and stroked out of the piano. Kissin stayed with Rachmaninov for three encores, all from Opus 3, the Mélodie, the Sérenade, and then ‘that’ Prelude, a piece possibly heard more often than ‘Happy birthday’.