Evgene Kissin: the Light and Dark of It

ItalyItaly  Evgene Kissin (piano) A recital at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome 01-11-2012. (JB)

Haydn: Sonata no 59 in Baflat, Hob XVI 49
Beethoven: Sonata no 32 in C minor, op 111
Schubert: Four impromptus: op post 142 nos 1 and 3, op 90 nos 3 and 4
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody no 12 in C sharp minor

I’ve never seen grazioso indicated in a Haydn score; yet there it is in every note he wrote, more by implication than application. Was there ever music which was so well-mannered, so gentlemanly, so considerate of audience and performer and somehow so perfect for every occasion –then as now. The workaday Kapellmeister churned it all out to order without any of it sounding mechanical; the grazioso guarantees that, all underscored by the most enviable craftsmanship ever heard in the history of music. The sheer quantity tells you that this must have been slave labour. But Haydn was no slave. Papa Haydn, as he was affectionately known, had a geniality which was an integral part of his craft.

I listened mostly in vain for these qualities in Evgeny Kissin’s performance of Sonata 59 in B flat, Hob XVI 49. No one will ever persuade me that Kissin is less than one of the most accomplished pianists on today’s scene. But somehow Haydn’s charm evaded him. It was as though he was hell-bent in putting something into this music which is not there. That amounts to bad manners. Charm is not a particularly Russian trait. But this is music which has to be given time and space to speak for itself. The performer can easily get in the way of it. And that is what happened here. When you are aware of the man in the driving seat, poor old Haydn doesn’t just go out of the window but is flushed down the plughole. And it’s nearly impossible not to be aware of the pianistic excellence of the great Evgene.

The opening Allegro was too fast. I worship Evgene’s finger dexterity, but not when it is cancelling out Haydn’s charm. The Adagio cantabile was too adagio and insufficiently cantabile. He sounded as though he was in battle here with a piano that was refusing to respond to his requests. And I am sure that he knows as well as me that battles have no place in papa Haydn. Dear Evgene, this music has charm, and so do you. You ought to be able to connect to one another, so why didn’t you?

In the last movement (Tempo di Minuets) he finally relaxed himself into Haydn’s impetuous stream; the sun came out and the Kapellmeister gentle, understated humour sparkled.

His Beethoven Opus 111 was disappointing for other reasons. Structure is a major element in this mighty musical edifice. It shocks me to be writing this, but what was lacking to almost an embarrassing degree, was a sense of direction. And there have been many occasions where I have been enthralled by Kissin’s sense of direction. He seemed to lose the thread; not just once, but repeatedly. This is at the opposite side of the spectrum to Haydn: the pianist has to construct the musical skyscraper before your ears, amazing you as it unfolds. But there were what came across as hesitations and even stumblings; this was a monument which was disintegrating rather than structuring before our ears. And again, he sounded wretchedly unhappy with the instrument. A losing battle: it seemed as though it wouldn’t give him what he wanted. And anyway, what he wanted was far from clear. And clarity of purpose is usually a guaranteed Kissin trait.

After the interval came the moment we had all been waiting for. In the four Schubert impromptus it was as though the summer sun had suddenly come out in the middle of winter. All the old Kissin magic was dazzlingly to the fore. I ought to qualify that dazzlingly, for it was the subtleties of tone and phrase which he led us through in these four pieces.

Russians understand pathos particularly well and Schubert is the Prince of Pathos; even his sunniest moments can be shot through with a hint of it. Kissin never misses the smallest hint. This is pianism as great as it gets. An impromptu is an improvisation. And that is what Evgene Kissin did when he first sat at a piano at the tender age of two: he improvised. When he plays the impromptus it sounds as though he is composing them. And in a real way, he is. Every fibre of his musical makeup is involved in this delivery. Schubert merely provided the map. It is this very great musician that takes us on the journey. And every bar comes across as a discovery, a new angle which he generously shares with us. I particularly appreciated the way he tapered one variation into the next of the op. post. 142 no 3. Variations can so easily be a bore in the wrong hands but this was an exquisitely nuanced musical journey which left the audience breathless with music that had previously thought that they knew.

That, of course, is a hard act to follow. And needless to say, he didn’t manage it. It’s unfair to expect him to do so. The Liszt 12th Hungarian Rhapsody had all the glitter and virtuosity which you would expect. And the little dogs in the audience laughed to see such fun as the dish ran away with the spoon. But what a come-down after Schubert, in every sense of that word.

Three encores followed: The Sgambati – Gluck Orpheus transcription and the Liszt Transcendental Study no 10 in F minor, both of which he played as encores last year. They are, in fact, beginning to sound a little routine –another word I thought I would never write of Kissin. The final encore, the Liszt transcription of Die Forelle was a sheer delight. And delight is something the man still knows how to do.

Jack Buckley