English profiles

Düsseldorf, 22.2.2003

Last Saturday I went to see a recital with Evgeny Kissin in my hometown, Duesseldorf, in the series of solo piano recitals. I would like to give my impressions of it, and hope it is of interest to some members here (even if they don't agree with it...).

When I first set my eyes upon the program that was scheduled for this recital, I was a bit surprised

- the last Schubert sonata is not a work that is usually associated with young virtuoso pianists like Kissin - I think of this work as played more by "mature" pianists like Brendel or Richter. However, why not exploring new territory?

The concert was - as almost all of Kissin's appearances - sold out, which is quite rare for piano recitals, at least where I live. The hall was packed until the last place, and the excitement of the public was palpable. - He came on stage like always, hair standing up (if not as much as some years ago), his somewhat robot-like march to the piano, the mechanical bows...well, everyone has a right to some eccentricities.

Already the first measures of the big Schubert D.960 sonata lead me to question his approach and to fear for the whole work - he began it more slowly than I ever heard it play. Not that I would advocate speed with this piece, of course - it is certainly not to be rushed. But, at least for me, Kissin took to the opposite to extremes, which
did not serve the overall impression too well. The consequence of him already starting very slowly was, of course, that the second movement with its funeral-march-quality had to be played even more slowly. And
if I already had the impression that the work was stretched to its limit in the first movement, it began to disintegrate in the second. One could also observe, in those two movement, a tendency to over-
emphasize certain parts, preferring to create small climaxes infused with rubato to taking a more global approach. This sometimes worked in the first, but (at least for me) utterly failed in the second
movement, especially to the end where - during the last 3-4 minutes - he played a neverending ritardando. Admirable was his ability to differentiate even in pp or ppp, he had a beautiful sound (which may be contradicted by other members, but I maintain this opinion), his touch was excellently controlled. One had also to compliment the public, which managed to stay ultra-quiet even during the most silent and slow passages. - While the first two movements were for me boring, incomprehensible and sometimes even dry (surprisingly spare use of the pedal), the 3rd and 4th movement had sparkle and drive and were really enjoyable. - So for me, Kissin is not a good choice for hearing big Schubert works, even if I do understand that he wanted to avoid taking a too virtuoso = fast approach, but taking a big work slowly does not equal in depth of understanding, or does not necessarily mean musicality (that's for example why I abhor some of Pogorelich's Chopin - originality taken too far).

The second half was more successful, as far as I am concerned. First of all several Schubert/Liszt-Lieder, beautifully rendered, with clearly-etched melodies, sometimes soft or also virtuoso ("Aufenthalt") when necessary, but I did never experience that the sound he produced was harsh (he sometimes does this, true, but that evening he did not). Then the famous Petrarca-sonet, which was interesting because Arcadi Volodos played that some months ago. Kissin used a bit more rubato, both played the fast runs impeccable, but Kissin's interpretation was to me more personal, more engaged than Volodos' (which was excellent nevertheless).

The scheduled program ended with a jaw-dropper, the first Mephisto-waltz. The speed, control and accelerations Kissin produced, the ultra-wide dynamic range were astonishing, even in a work one has heard so many times already. The work seemed to be almost electrified with tension, excitement and drama, and this all the more as Kissin did not fall into the trap of rushing the lyrical interludes. If I found his Liszt sonata (some years ago) sometimes lacking in ferocity, none was lacking in this devil-waltz.

He received the roaring applause that he, evidently, anticipated in choosing to close his program with that particular oeuvre. Several curtain calls later, during which he received flowers from the public twice (that also very unusual), he started his encores: First a beautiful rendition of Schubert's 3rd impromptu op. 90 (I hope I got the number right), the melody captivatingly soaring above the accompanying modulations. After this he got the first standing ovations, and he gave his thanks to the public in playing the Valse-Caprice from the "Soirées de Vienne" by Schubert, transcribed by Liszt. Élan, brilliance yet also balance were there, his playing never exceeding the boundaries of musically controlled virtuosity like others sometimes do (Lang Lang, especially...). Even more standing ovations, shouting and applause - and then another jaw-dropper, the 6th Hungarian Rhapsody with the fastest octaves I've seen it played in public - just as fast as the DG-recording by Argerich, even if it lacked a bit the excitement that the Argentine pianist or also Cziffra were able to create. Awe-inspiring technical feats, nevertheless, and as such a pleasure in itself to observe and to enjoy. The public still did not want to leave and kept on applauding, so that he gave in and played another, last encore - Liszt again, this time the Paganini-étude "La chasse". I had heard all the Paganini-studies played by Hamelin some time ago, and Kissin played the somewhat more extrovert, less elegantly, but it was just as fascinating. One more proof, if it was ever needed, that no one has a monopoly on "the" interpretation of a piece - I learned again that I can enjoy different interpretations if they're presented convincingly.

All in all, especially the second half of this recital and the encores, it was a memorable and highly enjoyable evening, and I'm looking forward to hearing at least his Liszt-program again (maybe he'll record it sometime in the future...). Kissin is, in my opinion, one of the leading pianists of his generation, and it's great that he manages to captivate audiences in such a way - selling out the house, attracting a younger public, creating such enthusiasm for piano music or music in general.