Evgeny Kissin in Recital: Very Interesting but Not Yet Quite the Real Deal

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Scriabin. Evgeny Kissin (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 10.6.2014 (CC)

Schubert – Piano Sonata in D, D850
Scriabin – Piano Sonata no. 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 29, ‘Sonata-Fantasy’.
Seven Études from Op. 9


Previous encounters with Evgeny Kissin have brought forth mixed reactions from this reviewer. This concert, billed to finish at 9:00 pm – though the actual finish time was 9:50 pm! – while not bucking the trend completely, offered plenty of food for thought. Born in 1971 and therefore still in his forties with some way to go before his half-century, it is indicative that there was something of the feeling of an arrival point within a larger, ongoing journey; or if not a full arrival point, at least a needed shift.

For the first part of the evening, Kissin chose Schubert’s 1825 D major Sonata, D850. It is a piece that poses difficulties on multiple levels: the fiddly semiquavers of the first movement; the actual balancing of the movements; the shaping of the slow movement. That Kissin sat down and launched forth immediately, with no pause to settle himself, spoke volumes. The first movement was impetuous yet blessed with miraculous articulation. If accents were sometimes too strong to be strictly classified as Schubertian, it was more successful than the second movement, Con moto. Here, Kissin missed the bitter-sweet heart of the music. Kissin’s tone was lush, with plenty of depth, and his rendering of parts of the third movement almost as a second slow movement worked well. The surprise was that there were moments here that were really quite captivating – as with Polllini, this is hardly a descriptor one would naturally use. He also eschewed the merely ’music box’ in the finale by adopting a markedly slow tempo; the harder tone he employed for some contrasting passages tied them back to the first movement. Food for thought indeed. Perhaps this was not great Schubert playing, but it was certainly stimulating.

Before the opening of the second half, a gentleman with a mobile phone was a perfect reminder of how these ostensibly life-altering gadgets can be the technology of Satan. Intent on finishing his conversation, he stood in the aisle chatting away happily as Kissin walked on; only the arrival of an usher steered him back to his seat. How far was this, then, from the Theosophist work of Scriabin, it’s heady harmonic vocabulary constantly striving to express and, eventually, merge with the ineffable. The Second Sonata (‘Sonata-Fantasy’) of the 1890s was given an addictively darkly perfumed account, but with the Chopin influence made very obvious. The coruscating Presto finale was masterly, the trills finding an energetic life of their own, becoming an integral part of Scriabin”s expressive armoury.

Kissin selected seven of the twelve Études from Scriabin’s Op. 8. (1894). Although of similar vintage, the pieces seemed more advanced, both in language and in compositional technique. From subdued turbulence through almost salon-like nostalgia and slow, beautiful melancholy to the high virtuosity but dark world of the final D sharp minor, this was masterly Scriabin playing. It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that one of Kissin’s most noteworthy discs couples music by Scriabin with Medtner and the Stravinsky Petrushka pieces (review). If Kissin in Schubert feels, if not like a fish out of water, than at least one in shallow waters, Kissin in Scriabin brings palpable homecoming.

There were encores before the final standing ovation, including an appealing Bach/Kempff Siciliano, some more Scriabin and the Chopin A flat Polonaise, Op. 53. The Bach/Kempff was actually the jewel, a moment of calm. This was an interesting recital, then, with many moments of beauty: just not yet the real deal.

Colin Clarke

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