United Kingdom Beethoven, Prokofiev, Chopin, Liszt. Evgeny Kissin (piano) Barbican Hall, London, 20.3.2015 (RB)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major Op 53 ‘Waldstein’
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 4 in C Minor Op 29 ‘From old notebooks’
Chopin – Selection of Nocturnes and Mazurkas
Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsody in A Minor S244 No. 15 ‘Rákóczi March
Evgeny Kissin is one of the standard bearers of the grand Russian school of piano playing and like the late, great Sviatoslav Richter he has both the technique and overall level of musicianship to be able to turn in superb performances of just about every composer he plays. This recital was a case in point given that it featured music from the Classical, Romantic and early 20th Century periods and traversed large scale sonatas, poetic miniatures and virtuoso showpieces. Kissin opened the recital with Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata which was written around the same time as the ‘Eroica’ Symphony in the period when the composer was coming to terms with his encroaching deafness. Kissin kept the opening movement brisk and the passagework clean and he judiciously followed Beethoven’s instructions around phrasing and dynamics. There was a muscularity to the playing which I liked and a clear sense of structure and argument. The lyrical second subject was played with a velvety beauty of tone but I wondered if it could have been a little warmer and given more space to breathe. I also wondered if he might have made a little more of some of the modulations in this movement as they came across in a very matter of fact way. The tempo for the short slow movement seemed spot on to me and it had a wonderful sense of solemnity and weight. The opening of the finale is an extraordinary piece of piano writing and I don’t think there is any ‘right’ way of playing it: Kissin created impressionistic colours and artfully blurred harmonies which did not entirely work for me but were interesting nonetheless. The ensuing passagework was played with surgical precision and there was enormous attention to detail with Kissin making the most of Beethoven’s dynamic contrasts and sonorities. The prestissimo coda was played with brilliance and razor-sharp articulation although I was a little disappointed that Kissin opted to play the octave glissandi as scales split between the hands and not as Beethoven wrote them.
Both Prokofiev’s Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas use material from old notebooks dating from the composer’s teenage years. I was pleased that Kissin included the Fourth Sonata in his recital as it is unjustly neglected in my view. This may be because of the dark, brooding quality that pervades the first two movements. The mood of the sonata stems from the fact that the work – like the Second Piano Concerto – is dedicated to Maximilian Schmidthof, a close friend of Prokofiev from the St Petersburg Conservatoire who committed suicide. Kissin seemed to have more of a direct emotional connection to this music than to the Beethoven and I was impressed with the symphonic breadth and range of colour he achieved in the first movement. The soul searching which permeates the movement including the sense of angst and unease, the sorrow and regret was conveyed brilliantly. The Andante assai starts in the lower depths of the keyboard and here Kissin did an excellent job conjuring up the dark brooding quality and dramatic intensity of the opening section. There is an interlude in this movement which sounds like a Rachmaninov prelude and Kissin played it with an ethereal delicacy. The dark shadows of the opening two movements are dispelled in the finale which was played with steely fingered brilliance and enormous rhythmic vitality by Kissin. There was real bite and energy in this performance and an underlying sense of the subversive.
Kissin first came to international attention when he performed Chopin’s two piano concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 12 and Chopin’s music has always been a core part of his repertoire. For my money he is one of the best Chopin interpreters around at the moment. He opened the second half of the recital with three of the composer’s nocturnes. The B Flat minor from Op 9 was a little slow for my taste but it seemed to work on its own terms and I liked the expressive freedom Kissin brought to the piece. He deployed a ravishing tone for the B major Nocturne, also from Op 9 and there was some exquisite filigree decoration. This piece in particular shows Chopin’s indebtedness to the bel canto composers and Kissin took note, making the opening section sound like a Bellini love song. The C minor Nocturne from Op 48 had a slow burning intensity and Kissin succeeded in achieving enormous power and weight of sound in the central double octave section.
We moved from the nocturnes to the mazurkas with Kissin choosing a selection from Op 6 and Op 7 and one from Op 41. The first three Op 6 mazurkas had a patrician swagger about them but also moments of nuanced poetic delicacy. Kissin used a wide range of tone colours to enhance the complex and shifting moods of each of the pieces. This was even more evident with the more melancholy atmosphere of the two Op 7 mazurkas which were suddenly lit up with the transitions into the major key. The set ended with a stylish and highly accomplished rendition of Op 41 No 1. I always think it’s a good idea to finish a recital with a barnstorming show piece and Liszt’s 15th Hungarian Rhapsody certainly falls into that category. Kissin was completely unfazed by the succession of technical hurdles, giving us double octave fusillades and pristine keyboard acrobatics with the minimum of fuss.
The audience responded with rapturous applause and Kissin played three encores by Chopin, Liszt and Prokofiev. He received several standing ovations and by the end of the evening just about everyone in the hall was on their feet applauding – the perfect response to a night of consummate pianistic artistry.