Two Polonaises in C sharp minor & E flat minor, Op.26
Impromptus in A flat, F sharp & G flat, Opp.20, 36 and 51
Polonaise in C minor, Op.40/2
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Sonata Reminiscenza, Op.38/1
Petrushka Three Movements (transc. composer)
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 18 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
By any standards – objective or otherwise – the audience at this recital experienced piano playing of an extraordinarily high order. Evgeny Kissin appears to have crossed the threshold from being a widely praised (maybe extravagantly so) prodigy into the arena of placing his phenomenal pianism and huge technique to the service of the music. The only shadow that crossed the mind was whether everything was just a degree or two over-calculated – particularly in the Chopin – and whether Kissin could do himself a favour by relaxing more. He did seem uncommonly tense in his general demeanour, which was stiff and unsmiling – except when playing the piano, which he appeared to embrace, cajole and command.
The all-Chopin first half was launched with no little determination with the C sharp minor Polonaise in which the various dynamic and textural contrasts were impeccably marked. A highly flexible rubato was employed which certainly extracted every ounce of expression from Chopin’s phrasing – but, on occasions, the pulse of polonaise rhythm itself was lost. However, the poise, the superb legato and the immaculate passagework were perhaps adequate compensation. In the E flat minor Polonaise, Kissin evoked an altogether darker sonority, and there seemed to be the playing-out some private tragedy through the intense and expressive gradations which pervade this elusive piece.
The four Impromptus provided an apt contrast to the pairs of polonaises that surrounded them. Again, the very varied demands of each were met, from the perpetuum mobile of the A flat, with the quavers impeccably even, through the more gentle and lyrical sections of opuses 36 and 51. Indeed, the latter had an almost seductive quality, and the variety of nuance was quite breathtaking. In the impetuosity of the Fantaisie-Impromptu, one particularly admired the careful balance between melodic and accompanimental figures.
Of the two further Polonaises, the hefty chords, powerful sforzandi and strong bass lines were offset by a delicate lightness of touch in the C minor, the concluding pauses were judged to dramatic effect. The familiar A flat Polonaise was given a potent delivery, with no hint of routine. I heard Horowitz play this in the same hall in his last London recital. I count myself fortunate to have experienced his heartfelt if fallible rendering as well as Kissin’s more impetuous swagger.
Nicolas Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza was given with an air of nostalgia, as if the music were harking back to another era – as well it might, given it was composed in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution just prior to Medtner’s departure from his homeland. Actually the opening piece in the first of three sets of piano works entitled “Forgotten Memories”, this one-movement sonata contains elements which might be found in a work of less modest dimensions and duration. The closely woven textures were marvellously clear, and the interlocking melodies seamlessly integrated. Throughout, the gentle and evocative tone Kissin employed was most affecting, yet the climaxes did not lack passion but were not out of proportion with the whole.
The highlight of the recital was an astonishing performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka movements. Transcribed for Artur Rubinstein, they are phenomenally difficult to play and would seem to require three (or more) hands for comfortable execution. Kissin’s two sufficed and the swirl and colour of the Russian Dance and The Shrovetide Fair were such that one quite forgot that an orchestra was not present. In the central section, In Petrushka’s cell, all the drama and pathos of the characters was brought to life.
I did not particularly want to hear more, but three encores were supplied: Liszt’s transcription of Chopin’s song “A Maiden’s wish”, Moszkowski’s Spanish Caprice, and Earl Wild’s transcription of a dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Kissin has been the recipient of a decidedly mixed press. I can only report that, on this occasion, one could not help being bowled over by his prowess and musical perceptions.