Overwhelming by Underwhelming: Kissin meets Grieg in Rome

ItalyItaly  Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky: Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, James Judd (conductor), Evgene Kissin (piano), Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome,  6.2.2012 (JB)

Brahms: Tragic Overture
Grieg: Piano Concerto in a minor op. 16
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 2 in c minor, op. 17

The Grieg concerto has so suffered over-exposure that it is now “naturally” greeted with universal contempt. When I was growing up in the forties you would have thought that there wasn’t another concerto written for piano. The familiarity bred the predicted contempt. Then, in 1948 at the Hollywood Bowl, the Australian composer, pianist and eccentric, Percy Grainger, gave a performance which knocked the socks off it. His tempi were outrageously fast, there was such an air of urgency in his delivery and this for a practical reason. He insisted in running to the back of the hall in his stockinged feet, but precisely timed to leap back onto the platform to play the cadenza just as the orchestra were downing their instruments for that virtuoso intervention. Imagine the shock-horror of the Purists. Some of Grainger’s rhythms were a mere approximation of what Grieg had written, though the composer is on record applauding Grainger’s performance. But O the Purists! They were shocked at both ends; by the familiarity for which they had only contempt, and by the novelty which produced their predicted rage. Personally, I am usually happy when the Purists are suffering. It is generally a sign that something interesting is going on.

Something was. Grainger, engaging his profound musicianship and unparalleled pianism, brought to life a concerto which had died a “natural” death. There is a piano roll of his playing the Grieg on YouTube if you would like to hear what I mean.

Evgeny Kissin photo courtesy Accademia Santa Cecilia

Michael Aspinall, referring to music written before Bach, once told me that the important thing to remember about old music is that nobody wants to listen to it and therefore you have to do something with it until somebody does. Of course, like everything Michael said, this was partly in jest.  But which part?  To affront that question, I once scribbled on a greeting card for a friend’s birthday,

Jest a moment, the young woman said.
What would you
do?  Stand on your head?
Chances like this are best
Never held subject to jest.

With all the foregoing criteria in mind, I set out to the Santa Cecilia concert to find out what Evgeny Kissin would do with the Grieg concerto.

In common with many pianists of the Russian school, Evgeny Kissin never lets you forget for a second that the piano is a percussion instrument. Uncommonly, he has found within this percussion-speak a beautifully cantabile sound whenever he judges it is needed.  He rapped out the opening figure in the most surprising understated way, permitted himself the slightest crescendo, then immediately let it fade to a whisper. All this as though a veil had been dropped over it. Thank you, sir. No one else I have heard has so subtly drawn our attention  to the major fact that Grieg is speaking in a minor key. Moreover, Kissin does this with the utmost simplicity, with only a touch of pedal and with his usual unmistakable conviction.

The percussive attack has the advantage of guaranteeing that the lyricism never lapses into sentimentality. When the flute (the superb Andrea Oliva) gives out the romantic melody of the second movement it is immediately repeated by the piano.  But you have serious competition tonight Andrea. It is as though the pianist is saying, But just listen to how I do this. And I am not gently blowing air down a silver tube but hitting strings. That makes a uniqueness of sound which causes audiences to stop breathing.

Kissin is involved with this music. And he communicates that involvement. He failed to tie together the roars at the bottom of the keyboard with the thundering out of the first theme in the cadenza. To my ear his sparse use of the pedal had taken him too far in this passage.  The roaring and the thundering were presented as two separate musical entities, whereas Grieg makes a point of scoring them as one.

The intermezzo which comes midway through the finale, breaking in on that jolly dancing on the village green movement, certainly needs to make a contrast. Perhaps the contrast was a fraction too much here. But it was also appropriately evocative of mountain mists, and this time muted with some admirably deft pedal work.

What Evgene Kissin did was to show us that there is exquisite unexplored music in these pages. But you need to be Evgene Kissin to do it. I myself hear flickers of humour in the final movement. But Mr Kissin takes his folk dancing “seriously” though he is never ponderous and his admirable sense of direction never errs. Furthermore he honestly believes that chances like this are best / never held subject to jest.

A charming Grieg salon piece and a breakneck speed Chopin valse were served up to the overwhelmed audience as two encores. In both cases, Kissin made magical use of his technique of overwhelming by underwhelming.

The concert should have been conducted by Vladimir Jurowski who was indisposed.  His place was taken by James Judd. And Rome has been covered in snow and ice with night temperatures below zero and schools and public services closed. The Accademia was forced to announce a reduced orchestra as some players were unable to make it to the rehearsals and concert. Mercifully, the excellent leading wind players were present. In the Tchaikovsky second symphony (which replaced the advertised third) there were outstanding contributions from Guglielmo Pellarin (horn) Paolo Pollastri (oboe) and the ever-reliable Oliva (flute). The concert opened with the Brahms Tragic Overture. Of the two orchestral works, James Judd has nothing new to tell us and consequently, on this score, I have nothing new to report.

Jack Buckley