Evgeny Kissin at Barbican Hall – Mozart K330, Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, Brahms Intermezzos, Albéniz’s Suite española, Larregla’s Viva Navarra!

Piano Sonata in C, K330
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
3 Intermezzos, Op.117 – in E flat, in B flat minor & in A
Suite española, Op.47 [selections – Granada; Cádiz; Asturias]
Chants d’espagne, Op.232 [selection – Córdoba]
Viva Navarra!

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 10 March, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Evgeny KissinPhotograph: Felix Broede / EMIThere has never been any doubt as to Evgeny Kissin’s transcendental technique: previous London recitals have instead questioned, to this reviewer’s mind at least, his ability to connect emotionally with the music he plays. His legion of fans worship him, whatever happens (there was a semi-standing ovation at the close of this first half), but the informed ear detects another, more mixed, story.

The leisurely grace-note in the seventh bar of the first movement of K330 spoke volumes about Kissin’s approach to Mozart: Romantic at heart; yet his staccato was harsh, as if to compensate. Repeats honoured, including the second part of the first movement, this Sonata was a longer experience than anticipated, especially factoring in the forced rubato of the development (which, generally, was not entirely rhythmically stable anyway). The Romantic trait was most marked in the central Andante cantabile, here far closer to an Adagio, an attempt perhaps to inject profundity from without. Significant harmonic shifts were minimised and it was difficult to enter Mozart’s sublime world with Kissin as guide, although at least the Finale had some sense of jollity and even some wit. But it was clear that we were far from home turf.

Beethoven’s so-called ‘Appassionata’ Sonata in some ways fits Kissin better, certainly from a virtuoso standpoint. There was much more to admire, not least the fact he counted the silences in the opening bars (not all pianists do, by any means). The A-flat section in the first movement found the Steinway glowing sonically, yet Kissin’s strangely forced rubato surfaced later. There were some slips, too: occasional notes that didn’t speak. The Andante con moto brought us to a territory where, despite superlatively together chords, emotion was largely absent, as was mystery. The music more crawled along than unfolded naturally, with Kissin refusing to let light in. Typical, then, that there was no magic in the approach to the Finale, which was the finest movement, finding fire from somewhere as it progressed, and possessed of a blazing coda.

The inclusion of late-Brahms points to Kissin’s softening and maturing. Perhaps the audience wanted something else, for there was a palpable sense of restlessness in the air for the first of the Opus 117 Intermezzos. Maybe audience and Kissin were itching to get on with the sunnier part of the programme, as the pianist found only a vague sense of calm to this piece, and the return of its opening idea was largely meaningless emotionally; the literal opening to the Second piece spoke volumes. Only the longest and last of the set contained any sort of communion with the composer; the syncopated central section was particularly fine.

Kissin was more at home with Albéniz. Particularly fetching was the identification of Chopin-like textures in ‘Granada’, in a reading that, for the first time this particular evening, felt entirely natural; as did the left-hand dance-rhythms of ‘Cádiz’. The chordal parts of ‘Córdoba’ (inserted between ‘Cádiz’ and ‘Asturias’) were very effective, almost a hymnal, and had a proper sense of inevitability and burgeoning brightness. One has to admire the terrific accuracy of ‘Asturias’, as well as suaveness and being structurally aware. A few snippets of Kissin’s singing (grunting) aside, this was a real highlight.

Joaquin Larregla (1865-1945), now little-known but in his day famous as a pianist, contributed the splendidly titled Viva Navarra!. Opening with a blaze of light, this unashamed showpiece received a simply phenomenal performance, most notable perhaps for Kissin’s remarkable jeu perlé touch despite the mountains of notes heaped upon the page.

There were three encores. First up ‘Maiden and the Nightingale’ (from Goyescas), which unfolded beautifully, then further Granados, a lovely ‘Danza española’ (the fifth piece of Opus 37) and finally Brahms’s G-minor Hungarian Dance.

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