Kissin Disappoints in Rome

ItalyItaly Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Albéniz, Larregla: Evgeny Kissin (piano), Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome, 14.12.2016. (JB)

Mozart – Sonata in C K330
Beethoven – Sonata in F minor Op.57, Appassionata
Brahms – Three intermezzi Op.117
AlbénizSuite española Op.47 (Granada, Cádiz, Asturias); Cantos de España Op.232 (Cordoba)
Larregla   – Viva Navarra!

Spoiler: This is not a doxology to the Russian icon known as Evgeny Kissin.

Mozart’s sister, Anna Maria (Nannerl within the family) was five years his senior, and already an accomplished pianist by Wolfgang Amadeus’s birth (which almost caused their mother’s death). These were the only two (of seven) Mozart children to survive childhood. The relationship between Nannerl and Wolfgang Amadeus was passionate, intense, serious, flirtatious, jealous, witty, and possibly incestuous. All these qualities matter, since, as I shall argue, they find expression in Mozart’s music. It’s almost as though Tristan and Isolde knew less about love and death than Wolfgang and Nannerl. Talk about swallowing a magic potion!

Take the Sonata in C, K330 – to my dear sister (Mozart was almost certainly in Paris when he sent it to Nannerl, though some have suggested he was only just up the road in Vienna). The first movement is Allegro moderato. If you have read the correspondence between the siblings, you will know that they traded in insider jokes laced with a good deal of irony, both literary and musical. It’s not hard to hear that both the allegro and the moderato have more than a whiff of irony. Evgeny Kissin had certainly heard it. He rapped it out with a breathtaking lightness of touch before anyone in the audience had time to adjust their seat-belt.

However, having fed them the fun, it sounds to me like Wolfgang’s message in the Andante cantabile was: and now, shock the audience by playing this one seriously!. It really is rather beautiful if you do this. Mr Kissin doesn’t. He knocks the hell out of the piano as though he finds this slow movement trite. Or even a bad joke.

The finale Allegretto sounds to me like the mischievous siblings’ insider agreement about a carefree, joyous ride. Not so Kissin. He plays this with anything-you-can-play-I-can-play-faster as his guide, thereby cancelling out the grace, charm and wit of the movement.

It is true that with his Op.57 Sonata, the so-called Appasionata, Beethoven had begun to explore the world of turbulence, his own and what he came to believe  was the world’s, too. But Evgeny Kissin doesn’t sound like he has really entered into these deep considerations. He roared out the whole sonata as though it were a Liszt transcendental study. That is an affront to Beethoven’s unquestionable search.

Brahms’s three intermezzos, Op.117, sounded lumpy in places, though here there were some moving, poetic moments, most beautifully realised in the second intermezzo –Andante non troppo e con molto espressione.  But here Brahms’s own agnosticism –a facing up to not properly knowing which way he wants to go, and making a musical poem of this by producing an aching longing, doesn’t find comfortable expression under the Kissin fingers. Liszt, inappropriately finds an easy entrance into Kissin’s reading.

The Albéniz pieces require the pianist to speak musical Spanish. Put briefly, Kissin doesn’t. Some fifty years ago, I travelled with a guitarist friend to Southern Spain in search of the real Flamenco. There was the commercial stuff everywhere, which we spent many days avoiding. Finally, in a record shop where the sales-assistant could only offer the usual commercial junk, another customer, who overheard our inquiry, said he thought he could help us. He was a French artist who specialised in portraits of gypsy children, and that very night these children would be performing for other gypsies and guests only. Were we interested?

Were we indeed!  The cave was damp and the stage was upturned beer crates. Voices and hands were their only instruments, They eyed my friend’s guitar and asked if they could use it. He said yes. It was eventually hit, banged, used as a weapon, thrown in the air, all part of a demonic ritual. It’s all right,  whispered my friend, it’s not an expensive guitar. Could you notate these rhythms either orally or in writing? I certainly could not. There were counterpoints of rhythms, sometimes starting slowly and slowly building up to a frenzied finale, where the young demons collapsed of exhaustion. By far the most thrilling music/dance combination I have ever witnessed. It felt, among other things, like an exorcism.

Do you have to be a Spanish demonic gypsy to perform Spanish music?

I don’t believe so. Some of us have heard Alicia de Larrocha play Albéniz and Granados. Fewer will have heard her teacher, Frank Marshall, but many will know his recording with Conchita Supervia of the Granados and de Falla folk song arrangements. Thrilling electricity from singer and pianist! (de Larrocha told me there are piano roles of Marshall which I still haven’t traced.) But it does seem to help if you have a bloodline to the Spanish tradition. Marshall was born in Spain of English parents and was Granados’s favourite pupil, taking over the pupils at Granados’s death: it then became known as the Frank Marshall academy. De Larrocha was its Principal right up to her death.

All that to illustrate how Kissin had set himself an impossible task. Nevertheless, the final piece – Viva Navarra! by Joaquin Larregla (1865-1945), which is an unashamed pastiche of a Liszt study, did bring a grand hurray! from the Kissin fans. But any comparison with Marshall and de Larrocha would be cruel, and not in Kissin’s interests.

Jack Buckley

7 thoughts on “Kissin Disappoints in Rome”

  1. For a while I have found Jack Buckley’s reviews highly amusing but musically rather questionable. This one is no exception. He makes a big point of the Andante maestoso marking in the first movement of Mozart’s K330. But there isn’t one. Mozart marked it Allegro moderato. It doesn’t sound like any music that Mozart marked Maestoso. JB seems to think that the second movement is marked Andante con moto. It isn’t. It is Andante cantabile.
    Finally why did someone decide to title the review “Kissin: Passionate, Intense, Serious, Flirtatious, Jealous and Witty” when JB’s when none of these qualities are mentioned in the article and he seems to have had a miserable time? And anyway how do you exhibit jealousy in a musical performance?

    • Corrections like this are much appreciated and thank you for writing to Seen and Heard. I have adjusted the review to reflect the correct movement markings which are indeed those you indicate.

      • The qualities mentioned in the report belong (in my reasoned review) to the Mozart siblings, Wolfgang and Anna Maria. Somewhere during the editing process. the name of Kissin got added to the title of the review, even though the report says that they were not heard in his playing. The tempo indications of the three movements of K330, are those provided by the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’s programme and Kissin.
        Jack Buckley

          • Jim has done his best to tidy matters up but has only made them worse. JB’s original point was that Mozart included the maestoso marking as irony, which Kissin appreciated by playing with “breathtaking lightness”. Whatever the Rome programme notes may have said, the maestoso is wrong (source: the reliable Barenreiter edition, which has moderato) and you can’t just replace “maestoso” with “moderato” in JB’s review and expect that it will still make sense. As moderato is not an indication of mood, it can’t be used ironically.
            Unfortunately the whole Wolfgang/Nannerl story has no real connection to the music or to Kissin’s performance; it is simply a piece of critic’s whimsy. The error over the marking has just proved the point.
            At least no one labelled Kissin’s playing as incestuous.

          • I give up with this though take your point but – regardless of markings – there can still be irony in music.

  2. What I heard at the concert led me to research the origins of the music, which I duly did in Herman Abert’s unimpeachable book, W.A. Mozart (Breitkhopf & Härtel 1923, which disgracefully had to wait until 2007 for an English translation by Yale University, with updated appendixes). I found it extraordinary the ways in which Kissin’s performance both reflected the history which Abert recounts as well as ignoring various details of the sonata’s origins. Jonathan Zoob may consider Professor Abert whimsical, but he would not find any supporters for that view in musicological circles.


Leave a Comment