The Fascination of Kissin in Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, LisztEvgeny Kissin (piano). Barbican Hall, London 20.11.2012 (CC)

Haydn: Piano Sonata in E flat, Hob.XVI/49
Beethoven:  Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Schubert: Four Impromptus: D935 – Nos. 1 & 3; D899 – Nos. 3 & 4
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C sharp minor

Avid readers of Seen and Heard might experience a sense of déja review: Kissin is on tour, and Jack Buckley reviewed the Rome leg, while Geoff Read took on the Birmingham concert. Reports are varied, and that is as it should be, for Kissin will forever split opinion. Whatever one argues about, though, there is no doubting his tremendous technique (see the Liszt below).

Back in 2006 (is it really that long ago?), I accused Kissin of being an extra-terrestrial download into flesh and bone, a ‘droid that had only read about human emotions, not experienced them personally.’ Things are not (quite) like that now, although his propensity for over-projecting remains with him, as was clear from the very outset of the Haydn. One admired the superb staccato, but where was the humour? The central Adagio e cantabile fared better, tending towards the poignant, its troubled middle section very effective. Shifts to the minor mode in the finale, too, seemed heart-felt. Whatever there might have been to reignite memories, there were also positive signs of growth.

The first movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata was weighty and arresting. Kissin took us to a forbidding territory, with the vital counterpoint crystal clear thanks to a low-pedal approach. If only the second movement had lived up to this, but Kissin could not really enter into the music’s interior mode of discourse. Neither was there much sense of the music unfolding naturally, or even of the extremes. The famous dotted rhythms – proto-jazz, some might claim – were decidedly subdued, while the “heavenly” prolonged shift to the upper register of the piano was almost – but not quite – transcendental.

The idea of Kissin finding the heart of Schubert’s interpretatively difficult Impromptus was tantalising. He had decided to mix and match form the sets available, taking two each from D935 and D899. It was almost as if he had woken up. The cross-hand dialogue in D935/1 (F minor) was simply gorgeous; again, sustaining pedal was sparingly used. If Kissin did not capture the Schubertian simplicity of the über-famous B flat, D935/3 – maybe that will come after another six years have passed – he nevertheless managed to find some charm – not exactly a trait associated with this pianist – later on. His playing here, as elsewhere in these Impromptus, was not the spirit of improvisation, but at least it represented the spirit of exploration. The dark shadings of the G flat were nicely given; the final offering was the most impressive of the set, deft and nimble but with a poignant undertone and beautifully projected tenor melody.

If anything is guaranteed to bring an audience to its feet, it is Kissin on top form in Liszt. There were passages in the Twelfth Rhapsody where he out-Volodosed Volodos (arguably the true King of this repertoire). Elemental bass tremolandi and a stunning range of texture and tone married to a proper Lisztian swagger made for a tremendously exciting reading. Liszt piles layer upon layer of virtuosity, and Kissin lapped it up.

So, most of the audience got a bit of exercise by standing up after he stopped playing and sitting down again for the next encore. There were three of them: the Gluck/Sgambati Melody (“Dance of the Blessed Spirits”), limpid and lovely; the Liszt Tenth Transcendental Study (in effect a temporally separated coda to the Hungarian Rhapsody); and the Schubert/Liszt Forelle transcription, fresh as spring water. A long concert, certainly – it finished around 9:55pm – but fascinating. There is much cause for hope.

Colin Clarke