Kissin’s Hair-Raising Performance of Barber’s Sonata

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Barber, Chopin: Evgeny Kissin (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 3.5.2012 (SSM)

Beethoven: Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No.2, “Moonlight”
Barber: Piano Sonata, Op. 26
Chopin: Nocturne in A-flat Major, Op.32. No.2
Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

In a review of Kissin’s performance last year at Carnegie Hall, I mentioned how only by suspending my disbelief in both Kissin’s Dorian Gray-like immutability and his automaton-like presence could I relax and enjoy the recital. In that program, he sailed through an all-Liszt program, seemingly unaware of Scylla and Charybdis following his every note.

Was he less of an automaton than last year? Yes and no. For one thing, he managed to smile at the audience in response to their applause, and he seemed to be a bit less rigid in his playing style. The big change was to reveal itself later in the program.

Some warhorses in the right hands are capable of recovering their freshness – not necessarily the first thrill of hearing the music, but at least the understanding of what made the work so appealing in the first place. Kissin, unfortunately, was not able to reawaken any interest in the “Moonlight” sonata. The first movement was overly coddled. Instead of letting the music flow, it felt like Kissin was holding back, expecting the rubato to be all he needed to give an edge to the Adagio. The second movement’s phrasing was choppy, and the last movement was nearly pummeled to death with over-pedaling and pounded sforzandos.

But the memory of this experience was pretty much wiped away by Kissin’s powerhouse performance of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op. 26. What must the audience have thought if they know Barber only as the composer of the tepid “Adagio for Strings?” Perhaps the members of the Russian community at the recital were not surprised as the Barber work does bear similarity to Prokofiev’s piano sonatas. Common to both are their off-center asymmetrical rhythms, syncopated and jazzy:

[wpaudio url=”″ text =”Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 6-Allegro moderato ” dl=”0″]

[wpaudio url=”″ text =”Barber Piano Sonata No. 1-Allegro inquieto ” dl=”0″]

His muscular approach made the classic recording of Barber’s Sonata by John Browning sound like Debussy. Kissin managed to make the first movement both modern and traditional at the same time. The second movement’s light fingered leggero had just the right impish quality, fleeting away in minutes. The more traditional Largo was played with sensitivity to its lilting and hesitating rhythms. The final movement was a showcase of virtuosity: a moto perpetuo, opening with a fugue and continuing with a combination of Gershwin-like rhythms and Bach-like counterpoint.

Even with the intermission smartly programmed after the Barber, it was more than anticlimactic to come back to the old Kissin. Not that the Nocturne in A-flat and the Sonata No. 3 of Chopin were poorly performed, but it felt as if Kissin had flipped his auto-pilot switch back on. The sonata’s first movement was slowed to the point of losing its cohesiveness. The second movement had a little more sparkle and Kissin revealed the classic Minuet and Trio basis of the Scherzo form. Kissin does best with works of bravura, and his final minutes lifted the audience (figuratively and literally) out of their seats.

Perhaps the still-young Kissin will have realized his abilities to go beyond what he has been doing and the repertoire that he has been given or has chosen. It is clear that he has an affinity for works of the 20th century – his recordings of Scriabin and Prokoviev confirm this. Let us hope next year he will still look like an 18-year-old child prodigy, but choose repertory more deserving of a 40-year-old master of the piano.

Stan Metzger