CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Evgeny Kissin's Op. 111

available at Amazon
Liszt, Études d'exécution transcendante (inter alia), E. Kissin

available at Amazon
Schubert / Brahms / Bach / Liszt / Gluck, E. Kissin

Previous Reviews:
2011 | NSO, 2009 | 2009
2007 | 2005
Among living pianists, Evgeny Kissin is in a separate category, someone whose technical acumen and musical approach are near-infallible. We have not missed a single local performance by this most celebrated Russian pianist in the history of Ionarts, and we were not going to miss his latest recital, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society on Wednesday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. WPAS's new leader, Jenny Bilfield, introduced the concert by speaking of her admiration for Kissin, so we may still hope that a biennial recital from Kissin will continue as perhaps our favorite Washington music tradition. As my concert companion for this performance said of Kissin's accomplishment afterward, "What other cosmos did he come from?" In one of the most memorable Kissin performances to date, this concert was centered on an extraordinary reading of Beethoven's final sonata, op. 111, a piece that for me can be ruined by an average or even merely good performance. Kissin's first take on this most daunting vision of a sonata not only utterly convinced me, bringing me to an emotional brink by Kissin's desperate grasp for infinity in the variations, but made me think again about a piece about which I thought I had fixed opinions.

Before the sublime, however, was the mundane as Kissin chose to pair op. 111 -- the farewell to the sonata, as Thomas Mann's Dr. Kretzschmar once put it -- with a sonata that sounded like the genre's elementary beginning. Haydn wrote the sonata in E-flat major (Hob. XVI:49) in the summer of 1790 for his friend Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of his employer's physician, who lived in Vienna. It is more difficult to play than the sonatas Haydn wrote for amateurs, but for Kissin it was child's play, a trifle that he dispatched dutifully. He gave it many nuances of phrases and a generally crisp articulation (almost no sustaining pedal), playful in the outer movements without ever becoming broadly comic and with immaculate Rococo twists and cascades toward the end of the first movement. The second movement, the heart of the piece, Kissin made wholly unaffected, earnest, cantabile, tender but with no need for distortion, even in the left-hand crossings. It was capped off by a gentle menuetto, not too fast but with a sense of propulsion, like the rest marvelously polished and contained. One could justifiably have been bored to tears, but I was not, largely because the way the piece purled by, as if streaming forth from a very elegant music box, was so charming. Kissin's capacity for understatement was evident with sections like the closing theme of the first movement (measure 52), a brief moment where he composer seems to lose his train of thought, snared by a momentary step into the harmonic thicket of the subdominant when he is trying to get to the dominant (a gesture Haydn returns to in the development and recapitulation).

If Kissin's goal was to make as stark a contrast as possible with what he was going to do with op. 111, he succeeded. The Beethoven opened with a fierceness in the first movement's menacing fugue subject, at times lost in a wild rumpus of notes. Kissin took the tempos as fast and wild and literal as he could, the bass booming and swirls of notes in the center section. The Arietta was simple, soft, almost but not quite unbearably slow -- as András Schiff pointed out in his lecture on this sonata, is this movement marked "Molto Adagio" or "Adagio, molto semplice"? -- with diverting little wisps of countermelody in the minor phrase of the first variation. Neither the second nor third variation crossed the line from jaunty into "boogie-woogie" -- again, I am with Schiff on this point, that hearing such jazzy overtones in these variations is a "banality." Schiff sees the last movement as being a "Gratias" moment, all about gratitude and thanksgiving, and that seemed to be where Kissin was aiming, at a brush with the divine, in the formless exclamations and wandering triplets drunk with starlight in the fourth variation. The trill section, where a trill has to be maintained as constantly as possible while all sorts of other things happen at the same time, was absolutely magical and serene. Recent performances of the piece immediately sank in my estimation -- Till Fellner in 2010 less so than Simone Dinnerstein in 2009.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Evgeny Kissin offers Viennese classicism at Kennedy Center recital (Washington Post, April 26) [3 encores]

Michael Guerrieri, Personality, proficiency from pianist Kissin (Boston Globe, April 23) [5 encores]

Lawrence Budmen, Kissin closes Kravis classical season in supreme artistic style (South Florida Classical Review, April 17) [no encores]
A quartet of Schubert impromptus (two each from the D. 899 and D. 935 sets) brought Kissin back down to earth, music that inspired a simple tunefulness and evanescent calm in his playing. The F minor impromptu (D. 935, no. 1) had effortless hand crossings and transparent serenity, the G-flat major (D. 899, no. 3) a natural stretch to the rubato, perhaps bordering on empty facility at times. The gorgeous B-flat major (D. 935, no. 3) was a radiant, breathing wisp of a thing, and the loopy, wandering excesses of the A-flat major (D. 899, no. 4) were disorienting. Liszt's twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody (C-sharp minor, S 244) was a sort of pre-encore, the only moment of pure theater in an otherwise cerebral, poetically minded program, a frenzy of pianistic showmanship that whipped the crowd into a huge ovation. Kissin was ultimately coaxed into playing three actual encores: a "Mélodie" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, arranged by Sgambati, for the slow aria; Liszt's tenth transcendental etude for more fireworks; and Liszt's orchestral transcription of Schubert's song Die Forelle to tie the threads together. The sense that Kissin had more encores ready -- including some Chopin, which I always hope to hear from this pianist -- was left unfulfilled. What were the last two encores Kissin played in Boston, just a couple days earlier? Chopin's D minor prelude from op. 28 and Beethoven’s Rage Over a Lost Penny. How sad that Kissin, who had agreed to sign CDs after the performance, did not get to those.

WPAS's extraordinary April continues with a recital by pianist Rafał Blechacz tomorrow (April 27, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

he did not get to those encores not because HE did not want to, but because he had to - sadly -vacate the hall exactly at 10.30