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Evgeny Kissin and the Yiddish Word

A recital by Evgeny Kissin is an unmissable event in my calendar. We have covered every one of his performances presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, generally every other year, last in 2013 and going back to 2007 and 2005. Nothing prepared me, however, for the sensation offered by his latest performance, a concert of solo piano music by Jewish composers, presented by the series Pro Musica Hebraica and the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall on Monday night. In a noble and out-sized gesture, Kissin took public note of his recent embrace of Israeli citizenship by having this program be his first concert in the United States since that decision became official. In between performances of this mostly obscure music, Kissin made the unprecedented choice of reciting some of his favorite Yiddish poetry.

The musical part, of course, was inspired, imposing, and diverting. Kissin is the sort of player who can make lesser music sound better than it might deserve, but the four selections on this concert all seemed to stand on their own. Ernest Bloch's piano sonata (op. 40, from 1935), heard in recordings up to this point, struck my ear as a little formless and wandering. It needed a virtuoso like Kissin to bring it to life, putting all of its various colors and influences (Debussy and Prokofiev, especially) in line, especially the opening of the central slow movement, where a vista into a whole new sound world opened up, and the brutal, but not overly fast, march of the finale. Mikhail Milner's Farn opsheyd (Kleyne rapsodie), from 1930, was a little Chopinesque in style, rather chromatic, an example of a piece that is not all that engaging made to shine on a beautiful wrist.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Evgeny Kissin plays forgotten composers and declaims poetry in stunning performance (Washington Post, February 26)

---, Kissin offers Jewish composers, Yiddish poets in striking concert departure (Washington Post, February 22)

John Podhoretz, Overwhelmed and Awed at the Kennedy Center (Commentary, February 25)
The most unusual discovery was the second sonata of Alexander Veprik (1899-1958), from 1924, which was more expressionistic in style, a rumbling tempest of trills, repeated notes, downward-slashing tritones, jagged motifs, and brutal parallelisms. The slow section went a little more in the direction of Rachmaninoff, but here one was reminded most of the barbaric style of Bartók. It worked because Kissin made it into a rather dramatic, storm-tossed monologue, with great variation of touch. The Suite dansée (op. 44, 1928) of Alexander Krein (1881-1953) was lighter in tone, with more hints of early jazz and Ravel, perhaps Satie in the third movement, Stravinsky in the fifth.

As striking as the music was, though, it was the recitation of the poetry, happily with English surtitles provided, that dashed all expectations. In addition to his rigorous concert schedule, Kissin enjoys making his own art and poetry as hobbies, so I have heard. Even so, he recited with what seemed only a couple of minor hesitations, and in a way that was emotive, entertaining, and always diverting (see and hear an excerpt). The poetry, none of which I had ever read or heard before, also afforded major discoveries: the longer, more lyrical works of Haim Bialik (1873-1934), and the shorter, more bleak and dark-humored poems of Isaac Peretz (1852-1915). We had hopes of hearing one of Kissin's own poems when he walked out for a single encore, but instead he recited Die Freid fun Yiddishen Vort (The Joy of the Yiddish Word, 1961) by Yankev Glatshteyn, a fitting end to an extraordinary evening, in which that very joy was passed from heart to heart.

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