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Evgeny Kissin, Master of Prokofiev

available at Amazon
Chopin, Sonatas (inter alia), E. Kissin
(Sony re-releases, 2014)
One of the highlights of any Ionarts season is a concert by Evgeny Kissin. The latest opportunity to hear the Russian virtuoso came on Wednesday night, in an uncompromising program presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Music Center at Strathmore. An inner core of deeply felt emotional masterpieces -- Prokofiev's fourth sonata and sets of Chopin nocturnes and mazurkas -- bolstered by showier Beethoven and Liszt on the ends. Those more profound pieces at the heart of the program were the high point, while Kissin left no doubt as to his near-unassailable technique in the outer ones.

Kissin remains at the top of my list among living interpreters of the music of Chopin, an impression maintained by this performance. In his hands, these pieces had an extemporaneous feel to them, beginning with the gesture of beginning the first nocturne on the program (B-flat minor, op. 9/1) with the right hand almost from nothing, hesitant even to start the piece. Kissin has a fluidity of rubato that sounds like improvisation, not rushed or dragged out sentimentally, but hesitating and impetuous in equal measure, with even the embellishments to the melody sounding not practiced but added on the fly. In all the nocturnes, there were degrees of exquisite softness and exceptional freedom in the runs of the right hand. Six mazurkas, even more intimate pieces, were exquisitely pondered, to the point of almost ignoring the audience: the blue notes savored in op. 6/1, the hurdy-gurdy sections of op. 6/2 and op. 7/3 dark and creaking, the middle section of op. 7/2 more martial.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Kissin slightly less than telling at Strathmore recital (Washington Post, April 24)

John von Rhein, Evgeny Kissin regales fans with masterful Chopin and more (Chicago Tribune, April 20)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Kissin’s distinctive mastery brings illumination on a rainy afternoon (Chicago Classical Review, April 20)

Tim Ashley, Evgeny Kissin review – reflection and severity from former prodigy (The Guardian, March 23)
After the masterful rendition of Prokofiev's eighth sonata heard at his 2009 recital, as well as his recording of the composer's concertos, one expected great things of the fourth sonata (C minor, op. 29). Prokofiev built this sonata from themes of earlier pieces in his old notebooks, and the piece feels heavily layered, strands on top of strands that Kissin teased apart with careful patience, the first two movements steeped in melancholy but also wistful tenderness. The finale provided all of the fireworks Kissin needed to end the first half, at times cantankerous, heavy-handed, even clownish, all around extraordinary.

The only minor disappointment was a somewhat willful performance of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata (C major, op. 53), with the first movement bouncing around in tempo, many of the runs just slightly mushed together and the second theme weighty, maybe a little clunky. Little changes and hesitations here and there seemed over-thought, which made the slow movement viscous and oozing. Then there was the third movement, taken at a moderate pace, the bell-like main theme's first note played as if it were an anacrusis. Kissin's trills were immaculate as they buzzed around the trill-laden statement of the theme. The counterpart of this display was Liszt's outrageous Hungarian Rhapsody no. 15 ("Rákóczi March") at the recital's end, which whipped the audience into a frenzy satisfied only by three encores: Chopin's Nocturne in F# minor (op. 48/2), Liszt's arrangement of Paganini's "La Chasse" caprice, and the march from Prokofiev's opera Love for Three Oranges. So much the better that Washington Performing Arts will not make us wait two years for the next concert by Evgeny Kissin, who will return to the Kennedy Center on October 28.

As a postscript, it bears saying, on this official 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians in Turkey, that Evgeny Kissin has spoken out for the recognition of this tragedy as a genocide. After the speech by Pope Francis to the Synod of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Church earlier this month, more governments may be willing to say the same.

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