Piano Contrasts from Evgeny Kissin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, SchubertLiszt: Evgeny Kissin (piano), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 15.11.2012 (GR).

Haydn Sonata No 59 in E flat major (Hob XVI, 49)
Beethoven Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111
Schubert Impromptu in F Minor, Op 142, No 1
Impromptu in B flat major, Op 142, No 3
Impromptu in G flat major, Op 90, No 3
Impromptu in A flat major, Op 90, No 4
Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 in C sharp minor

Evgeny Kissin received a warm welcome from the West Midlands audience on his return to Symphony Hall. This was his thirteenth concert here since his debut in 1995, but there was nothing unlucky about the occasion. Part of the Birmingham International Concert Season, his recital was eagerly awaited; it was one of only three concerts by the Russian pianist in the UK this year. Currently on a world tour with this particular programme, he goes to the Barbican on Nov 20th. It was presented at the Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome a fortnight ago and reviewed on this site by Jack Buckley. Whilst casting no doubt as to the credentials of Kissin, JB was not totally pleased with what he heard. Here in Birmingham I had no complaints. Whilst the two sonatas in the first half may not have been as scintillating as the Impromptus and Liszt in the second, I thought the sheer variety of technique and musicality of Kissin shone throughout.

The first noticeable thing about Kissin is his no-nonsense approach, he simply sits down at the piano and gets on with the job in hand – not even an adjustment of the stool. The Allegro of Haydn’s Sonata No 59 was to my ears typical of ‘Papa’, crisp and easy listening; the timing of the left and right hand echoes were a delight. It appeared as if Kissin was looking upwards for inspiration in the Adagio e cantabile, and I thought he got it: the deep fascination of this movement’s music came across. The playfulness of Haydn returned in the Finale (Tempo di Minuet); not one of the composer’s biggest jokes, but one that certainly brought a smile to my face.

The opening Maestoso of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32 brought a complete change in mood. It is, and was, grim, as befitted its ‘tragic’ C minor key. The crescendo that led into the Allegro con brio ed appassionato was more dramatic than I had experienced before in this work, but not overplayed. Beethoven was beginning to make a statement; this was after all to be his final musical articulation through a piano keyboard. There did seem to be some unusual continuity from Kissin, stutters that I took to be part of his interpretation of the dilemma facing the composer. For someone for whom piano composition and improvisation had been such an essential part of his life, leaving it all behind must have caused a few doubts and hesitations. However Beethoven balances these crises of confidence with the resolution of the Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile second movement. Kissin gave a thoughtful declaration of the theme followed by some transparent variations and a fluid coda.

After the intensity of the Beethoven it was a pleasure to sit back and soak up four of Schubert’s delicious Impromptus. Said in the programme to be composed on the direction of his publisher ‘to excite the growing number of talented amateur pianists in Vienna’, those chosen by Kissin displayed his versatility. Each was a delight and I suspect the audience found it hard not to applaud them individually, but they respectfully waited until the end of the fourth for some spontaneous and generous appreciation. Kissin captured the essence of each: generating the playful nature to the F minor; caressing the popular Rosamunde theme from the B flat major; inducing an ethereal atmosphere with the G flat major (my favourite); shimmering through the cascades of the A flat major.

Good as the Schubert was, things got even better with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 in C sharpminor. Having wooed the audience with the Impromptus, we were bombarded with the first few chords. Kissin employed every bit of his considerable ammunition to attack the piece; with all guns blazing, Kissin was taking no prisoners. The music is based on the csárdás dance and here was a pianist capable of doing justice to the pyrotechnics of Liszt. Far from the grace and legitimacy of any ballroom waltz or foxtrot, the passion of a Hungarian gypsy dance invaded Symphony Hall, ferocious and unmanageable.

The idea of combining the humour of Haydn, the complexity of Beethoven, the beauty of Schubert and the excitement of Liszt constituted a fine programme and was a great success. Although the four works only spanned just over fifty years, Kissin demonstrated how solo piano compositions had changed in that period, capturing the essence of each. With over one hundred minutes playing time the public got very good value. But, known for his generous encores, Kissin had not finished and was persuaded to do two. The first was the delightful Giovanni Sgambati transcription of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits from his opera Orpheus, while the second was Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No 10. in F minor.

Geoff Read