Italy 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
Albéniz – Suite 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.