Evgeny Kissin

Sonata in C, Op.2/3
Sonata in E flat, Op.81a (Les adieux)
The Four Scherzos

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 7 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Evgeny Kissin, born 1971, is, after Solomon, probably the most celebrated keyboard child prodigy of the last 100 years. Solomon took a break from performing to allow him to learn and develop as an artist and upon his return to the concert platform he quickly established himself as one of the great pianists combining a fabulous technique with innate spirituality and insight. Kissin has never undertaken such a sabbatical and the doubts about his interpretative development have grown greater with the passing years. So a recital featuring the greatest of all composers for the piano – Beethoven – and a hardly less great composer and Kissin favourite, Chopin, afforded an ideal opportunity to assess where he has reached. The Barbican provided extra seats on the platform and there was a keen sense of anticipation in the hall.

The opening of the C major Sonata from Opus 2 was relaxed, the sound crystalline and the second subject was sotto voce and gently swaying; however when it reappeared the left hand was very emphatic and gave a foretaste of what was to come. The development was often too loud and while there was some refined right-hand decoration in the recapitulation, there was no humour or quirkiness; it was all very relentless. The slow movement was rather Chopinesque with a hint of Bach; Kissin’s control of dynamics and colour was exceptional, the tolling left-hand was superb and the ff outburst near the close was stark. But as with the first movement there was no emotion, just beautiful pianism. In the scherzo the tempo was fast and the control of micro-dynamics also exceptional with some violent staccato and the last movement was fleet but stern and didactic.

Les adieux tells a story of farewell, absence and reunion, so the introduction must convey trepidation and loss at the beloved’s departure, Kissin conveyed nothing, the main Allegro didn’t roll forwards and the use of ritardando became predictable; and the Andante was, again, an exercise in tone colour and nothing more. The finale conveyed no sense of joy or release and was far too loud.

The Scherzos contained possibly the worst Chopin playing I have ever heard. The first one opens with two emphatic dissonant chords that Kissin punched out and then launched into a furious attack on the agitato section that never fell below ff. In the trio there was rubato and gorgeous sound, but no emotion, no rise and fall to the phrasing; it was totally contrived, and the entire recapitulation was brutal. Scherzo No.2 brought a massively didactic, harsh opening and savage attack and the central section was beautiful if self- conscious, never conveying the hymn-like quality that great pianists find here. The recapitulation and coda were simply smashed out with no dynamic variation below ff. Maybe Kissin is blind to dynamic markings but he needs to know that Chopin rarely uses ff and that fff is rarer still!

Thus Scherzo No.3 opened too loud, the runs in the trio were sentimental exercises in colour, the huge slowing before the recapitulation self-indulgent, and the coda, again, smashed out! Such was my sense of trepidation at the thought of Kissin assaulting the enigmatic masterwork that is the final Scherzo. He didn’t disappoint! Everything was too loud, the phrasing and dynamics were completely predictable and the coda was simply crude preening.

On the evidence of this concert, Kissin has not developed as an artist, which is a great loss. He has charisma and a superlative technique, but little else … and his Chopin should carry a health warning!

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