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Evgeny Kissin at Strathmore

Although I posted it, this review was contributed by Jens F. Laurson.—CTD

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Evgeny Kissin, works by Chopin
It's spring and apart from cherry blossoms, there seems to be a bloom of great piano recitals. Within less than a week Lang Lang, Philippe Entremont, and—last Wednesday—Evgeny Kissin all came to town. Kissin graced the Strathmore Hall's first piano recital, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society and played a first half dedicated to Chopin. Playing with great clarity and a refreshing attack, Kissin set the tone for the recital from the opening notes of the Polonaise No. 1 in C-sharp Minor. Comparison with Lang Lang, who played Chopin last Saturday, is almost inevitable and while the last time I saw Mr. Kissin, a week after his compatriot Arcardi Volodos, it was the latter who won the competition "hands down," this time, Kissin had no trouble prevailing as the superior artist. His expressiveness, his utilization of the dynamic range, and his sense of coloring made for an immediately involving performance. Searching and with a low brooding growing into rolling thunder, the second Polonaise from op. 16 followed. Subtle rubato and explosive charges, mood changes that turned on a dime were all admirable. And while it is true that Evgeny Kissin moves around quite a bit, it is neither as gratuitous as Lang Lang's schtick nor in contrast to inexpressive playing. Kissin's playing alone demands all the attention. When he sways back and forth, it does not add to the music, but does not
detract or distract, either.

Impromptus were next—A-flat major (op. 29), F-sharp major (op. 36), G-flat major (op. 51), and C-sharp minor (op. 66)—and they were all shaped masterfully, every detail turned... and even a series of extraneous noises (at least six cell phones went off during the concert, and apart from the usual coughcophony, every five minutes someone seemed to be dropping their loose change or car keys or unwrapping candy) could not lessen the delight that it was to listen him. Not by much, at any rate.

The Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, op. 66—interrupted by cell phones again—was astounding for the virtuosity and control with which Kissin delivered it. From the furiously fast runs of the opening to the lyrical to the rapturous to pianissimo trills that were hardly there, the playing was stunning. Two polonaises rounded off the generous all-Chopin half. The polonaises in C minor, op. 40, and A-flat major, op. 53, only further corroborated the point that Kissin is above all a marvelous Chopin interpreter, on a level which only a handful of his peers attain. His Chopin has excitement to spare, is bold, but never neglects the softer lyrical sides of Chopin which are, contrary to popular opinion perhaps, comparatively rare, anyway. As I like my Chopin played with—excuse my language—balls so big that they hang down to the floor—this distinctively Russian way with Chopin's last, grand Polonaise was simply

Nikolai Medtner is a wonderful Russian composer, almost as underrepresented now as he was a gifted composer. His sonata hybrids, like the Sonata Reminiscenza in A minor, op. 38, no. 1. that Kissin presented in the second half are well worth listening to. This particular work (punctuated by dry coughs, preferably in pianissimo sections) is a reflective musical meandering, contracting and expanding and dotted with ferocious interludes that give the Romantic virtuoso everything he needs to showcase his abilities. If those are as bountiful as Kissin's, the Sonata Reminiscenza becomes a memorable little gem. With a lesser artist in charge, I suppose it would make me question its musical merits.

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Igor Stravinsky, Pétroushka Suite, Maurizio Pollini
Stravinsky's Pétroushka Suite is probably the most difficult work in the mainstream repertoire, which usually ignores the likes of Godowsky, Alkan, and Kapustin. Maurizio Pollini's recording of it offers some of the best quartersome hour of piano playing on record. Where Pollini has Kissin on clarity and "pronunciation," Kissin—apart from the inherently unfair comparison of a recorded to a live performance—gave splashes of extra color and, to my delight, a touch of rawness that makes the core of Stravinksy's ballets.

Stravinsky's piano versions of his scores, when well performed, never make me wish for the orchestral garb and they certainly don't sound like "reductions." What Kissin delivered, in the Suite as for the entire evening—fully deserved the overused description of "brilliant"!

The audience, inexcusably noisy as it was during the concert, thanked Kissin with enthusiastic standing ovations and, more meaningfully, by staying in the hall. Relentless applause almost forced Kissin to delight with four encores: a Liszt transcription of Chopin's The Maiden's Wish, Moskowsky's Spanish Caprice (which had the audience stunned into submission), Earl Wild's transcription of the Pas de deux of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and finally Godowsky's Viennese-melancholic The Old Piano.

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