Kissin Beethoven (1-3)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Suddenly everybody is doing Beethoven cycles chronologically. Evgeny Kissin is playing the five piano concertos in order of composition and, beginning on the 24th, in the Royal Festival Hall, Kurt Masur embarks on a LPO symphony-cycle played in strict numerical sequence. This first instalment from Kissin was greeted with the sort of quasi-religious rapture one wishes one could share. To be fair, as he himself modestly makes clear in a conversation printed in the programme, Beethoven did not come naturally to him: “I would say that at the beginning of my career, with Beethoven I wasn’t even approaching the level of the music”.

Perhaps reflecting his ambivalent relationship with the music, the Second Concerto, first composed, and arguably the least characteristic of the set, received the most satisfactory performance: spruce, sympathetic and agreeably relaxed. By contrast, the First Concerto revealed a clear divergence of approach between soloist and conductor, Kissin evidently feeling that the work is “a breakthrough to the future” whereas Davis is quoted as saying that he regards it – rightly in my opinion – as being “still a homage to the past”. If a concert’s success was measured purely in decibels, this performance would undoubtedly rank high; Kissin tore into the piece, consistently playing too loudly and, in the last movement, with scant regard for any marking below forte so that all those off-beat sf markings scarcely registered. Not often is the LSO cowed, but on this occasion, despite some sensitive woodwind solos, the orchestra didn’t get much of a look-in; one emerged at the interval feeling distinctly battered.

The tougher Third Concerto stood up to the Kissin treatment rather better; however, the reality is that in Beethoven there are whole layers of feeling which he scarcely touches. He does not find the humour, and humour in Beethoven is not an optional extra (as Brendel and Pletnev so clearly demonstrate). Nor does Kissin really interact with orchestral musicians in the way that great chamber musicians do. Nor is there that sense of exploration, the feeling that however well you know the piece, one is still embarking on a voyage of discovery which may turn up something new or unexpected.

In the Third Concerto Kissin played with maximum force and vehemence, a titanic first movement cadenza certainly and a beautifully voiced Largo … but, beyond that, what he actually felt about the music remained an enigma, a recorded statement rather than a living experience. Sir Colin and the LSO accompanied adequately and without their customary finesse.

  • Concertos 4 & 5 on Sunday 14 November at 7.30
  • LSO

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