Evgeny Kissin at Barbican Hall – Beethoven, Barber & Chopin [Moonlight Sonata]

Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27/2 (Quasi una fantasia – Moonlight)
Piano Sonata
Nocturne in A flat, Op.32/2
Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 March, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Evgeny Kissin. ©Sasha Gusov licensed to EMI ClassicsEvgeny Kissin opened his Barbican Hall recital with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata – not that the composer christened it thus – the opening hypnotic movement played to perfection in terms of tone (an excellent Steinway) and in the balancing and weighting of chords. Yet the tempo was unduly deliberate. With little tension between the notes, the music dragged and ran out of illumination while fingers were still touching keys. The tiny Allegretto that follows had a nice spring to its step and well-judged contrasts, however, and although Kissin found eloquence within the tempest of the finale and signified something out of its fury, to omit the second repeat was structurally damaging as well as illogical. In this movement it has to be neither or both.

Kissin has long championed Chopin, although it’s arguable that he has rarely found again the insouciance that informed his live performances (issued on CD) of Chopin’s two concertos when a prodigious 12-year-old. He is now 40. Neither the Nocturne nor the B minor Sonata was an unqualified success. The former, although gently private and subtly dynamic, was just a little literal in terms of rhythm. The first movement of the Sonata, commanding and confiding as it was, and without excessive rubato, became too rhapsodic come the end of the exposition (and rightly, given this approach, it was not repeated). Kissin also gazed too longingly at the slow movement (sometimes foursquare, sometimes searching and rapt), its pace hindered. The music was also pounced upon by those with bronchial problems whose indiscriminate coughing had earlier conflicted with Beethoven’s night-time poeticism. In the preceding scherzo, Kissin’s dexterity was easeful, yet a lighter coverage and something more mercurial wasn’t quite achieved. The finale, not without some technical awkwardness, lacked impetus.

Of Kissin’s three encores, the last – ‘March’ from Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges – was the least successful, simply because however bravura the performance, and this was, the music doesn’t work away from the orchestra. First off, a Chopin Mazurka, full of contrasts, was a little literal, and then came Six Variations on an Original Theme (Opus 76) using the ‘Turkish March’ from The Ruins of Athens, Beethoven, and Kissin, at their wittiest and most carefree. Expect to see these two extras on YouTube – the darkened Barbican Hall was lit up by hundreds of mobile phones making illicit recordings!

What made this recital interesting was the inclusion of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata (1949); both for itself and that Kissin should play it (although he was no doubt attracted to a piece first championed by Vladimir Horowitz). If not the recital’s last item, it was by far the best. Barber, responding to a commission by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers (intriguing in itself), pours forth aggressive dissonance and angular melodies (quite a shock for anyone only knowing Adagio for Strings, one imagines), yet this terse opening movement also reveals a beating, Romantic heart, yielding, inviting and luminously sounded – knotty and complex, yes, but also lucid and powerfully concentrated. Kissin was simply stunning in his playing and in his empathy with the music. He was also the master of the scherzo’s obsessive and sinister patterns – this is music that stops rather than ends – and he was at-one with the anguish of the Adagio, its angry climax made ferocious as if Barber were exorcising demons. The finale’s rough-hewn fugal writing was thrilling, and how well Kissin found the music’s sassier and jazzier aspects. In terms of identification, interpretation and technique, this was a great twenty minutes: and the confirmation of a masterpiece.

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