Evgeny Kissin at Barbican Hall – Liszt

Etude d’exécution transcendante – Ricordanza
Piano Sonata in B minor
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – Funérailles
Années de pèlerinage: Première annèe (Suisse) – Vallée d’Obermann
Venezia e Napoli

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 13 February, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Evgeny Kissin. ©Sasha Gusov licensed to EMI ClassicsYou know you’re getting old when child prodigies start approaching their fortieth birthday, and the guileless, geeky boy-wonder, on the evidence of this Liszt recital, has grown up. It’s been difficult in the past to associate Evgeny Kissin with any particular composer. His discography bristles with Chopin and the Russian big boys, with, so far, only a modest presence from Liszt. Some of Kissin’s more discerning fans – and he also has an exuberantly uncritical fan-base, much on form at this concert – wouldn’t cross the road for his Beethoven; indeed, in his LSO concerts with Colin Davis of the concertos a few years ago, it wasn’t so much a case of creative spark as creative block. Kissin’s Chopin is admirable but often too formidable; his strength and barnstorming virtuosity suits Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, but are hardly transformative.

So, in terms of direction, maturity and vision, Kissin’s Liszt programme has a lot riding on it – Liszt, the mainstay of 19th-century music and musicianship, born two years after the death of Papa Haydn and died when Schoenberg was nearly a teenager; a composer whose music is central to the romantic and modern movements and without whom Wagner would have been a lesser figure; and a composer upon whom many pianists base their careers.

If ‘Ricordanza’ wasn’t exactly a gentle immersion into Liszt’s technical demands, at least its emotional level is fairly temperate – its simple poetry expanding into a sequence of dazzling cadenzas, although Kissin could have allowed the main tune to speak more for itself to create the contrast between that and the effortlessly flowering decoration. But in terms of clarity, evenness and mercurial speed, Kissin laid down his credentials in some style.

The most satisfying aspect of the B minor Sonata was that, for this supremely secure performer who can make the hardest music sound easy, it sounded like a challenge. Kissin has often been taken to task for being detached, disengaged even. In the Sonata, though, his overview of its half-hour span hardly faltered; the occasional fluff indicated a degree of risk-taking and involvement that electrified the music; and the sign-post declarations of the grand theme were prepared for and arrived at with a perfectly judged sense of inevitability. Possibly the way he clung on to the dream-world of the slow section became too mannered and distracted, stretching expression to breaking point, but it suited the following hefty Reger-like counterpoint very well. The B major coda was more than an apotheosis; it was like the closing pages of Verklärte Nacht, delivering the music into a new and transcendent realm. Sometimes he left himself no room to manoeuvre in terms of dynamics – some of the fortissimos were wire-breaking in their ugliness – but this was Kissin as unbuttoned and inside the music as I’ve heard him.

After the interval, there were two more heavyweight works, Funérailles, which Kissin played with a Wagnerian feel for its tragic heroism, with some stunning detail and range of colour, followed by a performance of ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ that took in the craggy landscape of the music’s sublimely morose romanticism and was full of Byronic majesty. Enough grandeur, already – with the impossible difficulties of Venezia e Napoli, especially the concluding manic ‘Tarantella’, Kissin was firmly and blisteringly on home-ground. The two encores, Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ and one of his after-Schubert Soirée de Vienne, were a clinching lap of honour.

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