United Kingdom Beethoven and Rachmaninov: Evgeny Kissin (piano), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 29.3.2018. (AS)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat, Op.106 Hammerklavier
Rachmaninov -10 Preludes, Op.23 – Nos. 1-7; 13 Preludes, Op.32 – Nos. 10, 12 and 13
The long, slow third movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata is a well-known potential graveyard for pianists, and I have heard it reduced to complete incoherence by one of today’s prominent performers. It takes artistry of a high order to keep the musical argument flowing meaningfully over its very long span (on this occasion the timing was 21 minutes); to convey the whole movement as a satisfying entity, but yet to bring out the individual nature of each succeeding episode within the movement. In his endeavour Evgeny Kissin succeeded triumphantly. His was a masterly display of intellectual and imaginative control.
The sonata’s first movement had been more controversial in performance. The opening was less than clearly stated, since Kissin introduced unusual touches of rubato and eccentricities of phrase. It was all a bit impulsive and restless. But the Scherzo was superbly light of touch and mercurial in nature, with the movement’s abrupt change of mood to one of forceful vehemence almost shocking in its power.
In the finale Kissin produced extraordinary impressions of dark emotions in the quiet opening passages, and the fugue was played with titanic energy and concentration to bring the work to a triumphant close. No wonder the audience reacted with wild enthusiasm, since it had just heard a very extraordinary performance. Pity poor latecomers, though, since although the recital started minutes after the due time, further entry will have been impossible, because Kissin left almost no breaks between movements.
For the second half Kissin had selected ten of the 24 Rachmaninov Preludes, the first seven of Op.23 and three from Op.32. His identification with the varying moods of the music seemed complete, with warm, rich-toned beauty expressed in the more meditative pieces and the utmost brilliance and virtuosity produced for the more extrovert numbers. His account of the well-known Op.23 No.5 was uncannily like Rachmaninov’s own recording of 1920: one could almost imagine the spirit of the composer guiding and encouraging his worthy successor, so complete was Kissin’s identification with the music. It was noticeable that the pianist obviously considered his ten choices to be an entity, since he quickly stifled applause that broke out after the seven Op. 23 pieces.
In response to a justifiably wild ovation Kissin duly obliged with four encores: Scriabin’s Étude, Op.2 No.1; his own jazzy concoction entitled Toccata; the notorious Rachmaninov Prelude Op.3 No.2 that audiences always wanted the composer to play as an encore to the point that he came to hate it; and a Tchaikovsky’s Meditation. One almost felt sorry for the pianist having to go through this routine after what must have been a most demanding programme, but I suppose it’s part of the deal.