Kissin/Vienna Philharmonic [live webcast]

Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat


Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 29 August, 2020
Venue: Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg [live webcast]

Throughout its history the Salzburg Festival, celebrating its centenary this year, has never been short of glory or greatness. Championed from the beginning by five giants of the European cultural landscape – Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss, Franz Schalk, Max Reinhardt, Alfred Roller – this is the Roman-sited river city, Mozart’s birthplace, where legends come and legends are made.

Evgeny Kissin first appeared here in 1987, aged fifteen. For this programme he took on the splendour and brilliance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, delivering a performance as full of Romantic heart as Classical architecture, a rare mix when it comes to this piece. At 19:44 more measured than the Richter/Kondrashin Russian yardstick, certainly very different from the ‘flying note’ Argerich approach (17:30 with Abbado), I found myself harking back curiously to facets of the old Earl Wild/Kostelanetz recording (19:18) – the same kind of purposefulness to the notes, not without glitter but conscious of tone and depth, patrician in rhetoric. Striking from the onset was a refusal to rush or sensationalise events. Liszt marked the massive C-major chords at the start of the first cadenza (a recurring motif) “grandioso”, and, paying dividends, that’s what Kissin gave us. Towering bronzed power, full-pedalled and noble-voiced, resisting accelleration. Statement making. Dudamel and orchestra matched the vision – rich tuttis, weighted unisons, eloquently personalised cameos. Links between ‘movements’ were graciously calculated, that between the opening Allegro maestoso and ensuing Quasi adagio notably balanced, Kissin’s projection in the latter a blend of fragile, pensive sentiment without sentimentality, the clarity, vocalising and musicality, the harmonic tinting, of his left hand a study in non-effacement. All in all a pretty immaculate reading, no bridge too far, all hurdles cleared. Astute camera work afforded clinical close-ups of a fabulously honed technique at work, the physical precision and evenness of runs and trills, the strength of single-note attacks, as riveting to watch as the iron-control of chordal fields and double-octaves. Pleasing orchestra no less than audience, Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz, Opus 64/1, made for a swiftly dispatched encore, characterful without being coy, with all the inflections and emphases Kissin has favoured us in the past.

Having a week ago journeyed the Wagner/Bruckner road with Thielemann, and a less than a week before that Beethoven Nine under Muti, the Wiener Philharmoniker radically changed gear for Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet (1909-10), donning the garb of Russo-Impressionist folklorists and fantasists, transforming strands of rhythm, wisps of melody, washes of timbre, into a vast other place/other dimension engagement. Dudamel gets on well with these players, and he encouraged them to respond viscerally to the fairytale and theatre of Stravinsky’s music, turning what in the hands of some can be a quite bitty, disjointed experience into a convincing, organic totality. A born colourist, he produced a canvas abundant in mid-range ‘characters’, subterranean darkness, piercing rays, thunderous climaxes, savage onslaughts, languid sweetness, cinematic tableaux, the natural and the supernatural. The energised young man that once was hasn’t gone, but greater age and wiser insights now bring heightened awareness to his music-making. The ballet’s original orchestration (“wastefully large,” Stravinsky thought in retrospect: the 1919 and 1945 suites are for reduced forces) calls for an impressive army of musicians, including quadruple woowind, three harps and a stage band. The VPO rose to the moment, brilliantly individual in the many exposed solos, tightly co-ordinated in the ‘chamber’ passages, carving extremes of mood and dynamic, melody and harmony, relentlessly so in set-pieces like the Infernal Dance. The long paragraphing and shimmer of the Scene Two pages, that wonderful horn solo coming out of nowhere, like a star from behind a cloud, “At the gate the pine swayed”, the final Thanksgiving, the closing, exultant blaze of B-major fff, pp subito, crescendo, sfff – genius without bounds, exhilaratingly caught, the acoustic of the Grosses Festspielhaus, opened in 1960, framing the narrative magically.

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