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16.4.07

Kissin's Fantasy

available at Amazon
Fantasy, Evgeny Kissin
(released April 10, 2007)
Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin is 35 years old now, which means that it is long past time to stop thinking of him as a prodigy. Even so, the new release in the Deutsche Grammophon Portrait of the Artist series, a 2-CD set called Fantasy, does just that, taking us back to the time when Kissin was just a kid from Russia with crazy hair. (For some context, check out this video of Kissin playing the first Chopin concerto, at the Tchaikovsky Competition, when he really was just a kid.)

The title of the compilation refers to the combination of several pieces called Fantasy. I admire Kissin's recording of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, which has all the delicacy and power one could want. That combination is typical of Kissin's playing, part gossamer wing and part sledgehammer, and it's a live performance, to boot. Most pleasing are the Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs, also recorded in 1990, which qualify distantly as fantasies, I suppose, in that Liszt's handling of his source material is on the free side. Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig are savagely difficult, and Kissin plays them with panache. Auf dem Wasser zu singen and Der Müller und der Bach are more contemplative, exploited by Kissin for their harmonic and textural details. (The latter song has a truly odd, lovely melody exaggerated by Kissin's performance.)

Evgeny Kissin at Ionarts:
Kissin and Levine, Schubertabend

2005 recital, Strathmore
The Brahms pieces, op. 116, are from the same older recording, when Kissin was still not 20 years old. Kissin and Brahms seem like a good match in temperament (speaking of sledgehammers), and the second op. 116 pieces, an Intermezzo, is particularly nice. The most stunning technical achievement is probably on Liszt's 12th Hungarian Rhapsody (C sharp minor, S. 244), also recorded in 1990. After a lyrical, slow introduction, the piece begins to twitter with virtuosic Hungarian scales, dancing along in folksy accelerandi and rallentandi. One thing that has always impressed me about Kissin's technique is the individuation of his fingers, and he can make every note in the endless scales seem dry and unto itself.

For something completely different, the anthology also has Kissin's 1991 recording of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado (from the 1991 New Year's Concert in Berlin). It's a pleasant enough piece of music, and vocal solo contributions from Cheryl Studer and John Aler add value, but it's not something I would necessarily seek out. Even less to my taste is the Tchaikovsky first concerto, recorded in 1988 with the Berlin Philharmonic, this time under Herbert von Karajan. Kissin was only 17 when he made it, which is remarkable, yes, especially since it is also a live recording. For this big Romantic concerto, Karajan and the Berlin Phil deliver the goods along with Kissin, ensuring all those lush, bloated characteristics that make me really dislike the piece. There are ups and downs, but this anthology -- priced to move at Amazon, at $12.97 for 2 CDs -- is a good introduction to the Kissin of 15 years ago, in case you missed it.

If you want to hear the Evgeny Kissin of today, he will play a recital, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society, at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night (April 18, 8 pm). The program (.PDF file) includes the Beethoven C minor variations (WoO 80), the Schubert 7th sonata, and sets of Brahms (op. 118, not op. 116) and Chopin.

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