Compelling, Individual Pianism from Evgeny Kissin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Albéniz, Larregla: Evgeny Kissin (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 10.3.2016 (AS)

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10 in C, K330
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
Brahms: Three Intermezzi, Op. 117
Albéniz: Suite española No. 1, Op. 47 – No. 1, Granada; No. 4, Cadiz; No. 5, Asturias
Albéniz: Cantos de España, Op. 232 – No. 4, Córdoba
Joaquín Larregla: Viva Navarra!

Evgeny Kissin’s demeanour on stage is modest and unaffected, but when he sits down at the keyboard and starts to play he is one of those pianists who immediately compels one’s attention. It is partly the very individual, magical quality of his tone that is so striking. Such is his magnetism that it leads us to accept sometimes unusual stylistic features in his playing that would not be so easily accepted in the case of most other artists.

His Mozart did not accord at all with the generally accepted present-day classically reserved manner of playing this composer’s music. In the first movement his basic tempo was quite brisk, quite bracing, even: there was a shimmering quality in his tone, and the musical argument was acutely, delicately and very expressively drawn. It was almost a throwback to the experience of hearing some great pianist of the Romantic era. The slow movement was hardly played Andante cantabile, as directed, for there was a curiously halting quality in the phrasing, and the Allegretto finale had an almost jaunty, bouncy quality – it was very communicative, but was devoid of politically correct stylistic neatness.

In the Appassionata Sonata’s first movement there was an initially cautious, exploratory quality in Kissin’s playing, quite wayward in its use of expressive devices, but then the music exploded into life with passion and great energy. The expression was still wilful and even eccentric, and no doubt some listeners disapproved, but it was riveting, exciting playing. Kissin approached the slow movement’s opening in a very seriously deliberate, somewhat strait-laced fashion. But as the musical argument developed so did he increase the expressive element in his playing to an extravagant extent, so that his quietly quicksilver statement of the finale’s connecting opening paragraph made a telling contrast. But soon the music making became fierce, impulsive and explosive, and the work ended excitingly in a whirlwind accelerando, to predictable storms of applause.

The three late Brahms pieces were perhaps given the least effective performances of the evening. In the first Intermezzo Kissin responded to the music’s gentle, introspective nature with some sensitivity, but it didn’t flow very easily: there were tiny little halts here and there and in also the second piece, as if the pianist was not quite at ease in this environment. The third Intermezzo meandered a little: not a great deal seemed to be happening, though communication improved towards the end.

Late-Romantic Spanish music usually sounds at its best in the hands of Spanish pianists, who bring a specifically dry but rhythmically strong, almost bumpy quality to it. In his group of Albéniz pieces Kissin didn’t try to ape the Spanish style, but evidently this music speaks clearly to him, for his playing was full of atmosphere, affection and warmth, and it also had a quality that one doesn’t necessarily associate with this pianist – it had lots of charm. Larregla’s Viva Navarra! (this composer was a near contemporary of Albéniz and a renowned pianist) is a shamelessly extrovert virtuoso piece, and Kissin wallowed happily in its welter of notes, earning an ovation for his pains.

Naturally the audience wouldn’t let him go after that, and elicited three encores from him. This routine can be frustrating for audience members if the player doesn’t announce the pieces to be played in a clear, carrying voice, and on this occasion Kissin made no announcements. Fortunately many of the piano fanciers in the audience will have known the popular items he played: “Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñor” (The Maiden and the Nightingale) from Granados’s Goyescas, Op. 11; then the same composer’s “Andaluza” from his Danzas españolas, Op. 37, both these pieces nicely but slightly waywardly played,. Finally came Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1, which was banged out vulgarly at great speed, to the audience’s delight. This was an understandable aberration, perhaps, in the context of the by then over-excited hall atmosphere.

Alan Sanders

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