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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Schubert/Liszt, Liszt; Evgeny Kissin, RFH, 2nd March 2003 (MB)


There can be no doubt that Evgeny Kissin possesses one of the most dazzling techniques of any pianist today (only Pletnev matches it); the question, however, perhaps asked more of Kissin today than other great pianist, is to what purpose he puts that technique. It is certainly not at the service of the music – at least if his wayward performance of Schubert’s B flat major, D960 sonata is anything to go by.

It was fascinating to look at the concentration on Mr Kissin’s face as he meandered through its first two movements; for, that same concentration distilled itself into boredom for the listener. I don’t think I have ever heard the opening movement taken so slowly (even allowing for the fact he took the repeat) – every note was heavily phrased, to the extent that the movement became fragmentary under the intrusiveness of his finger work. Even allowing for the fact that most of those two movements are written in pp or ppp Mr Kissin made little effort to differentiate between the dynamics. Where there should have been a ravishing keyboard colour there was actually none; where there should have been a poetic sweep to the playing there was just a sombre, leaden descriptiveness. If the last two movements fared better – a skittish, although hardly mercurial, Scherzo – and an opaque, but usually dramatic Allegro – it was partly because Schubert’s Leonine writing was here more in touch with Mr Kissin’s own mind frame.

The second half opened with a poor performance of Ständschen which threatened to be as innocuous as the sonata which had preceded it but things improved with the following three transcriptions – Das Wandern, Wohin and Aufenthalt where his tone settled.

Much better were his performances of two Liszt showpieces – Sonetto CIV del Patrarca and Mephisto Waltz No.1. His performance of the Petrarch sonnet perhaps missed some of the work’s intricate lyricism, but the translucency of Mr Kissin’s keyboard control, especially at the top of the keyboard’s register, was often ear-catching, even beguiling. Some hard pedalling aside, this was a performance which concentrated on the operatic.

From a sheerly technical viewpoint, Mr Kissin’s performance of the Mephisto Waltz No.1 was incandescent. Few present could have ever heard a performance before this one in which the grip was so tight, the clarity of finger work so precise and the effervescence of the interpretation so electrifying (at times during the work I wondered exactly how Mr Kissin would approach Liszt’s Totentanz). Emotionally, the work calls for none of the demands of the Schubert and as such his use of rubato was minimal and unobtrusive, perhaps the perfect reason why the performance worked in the way that it did; as a virtuoso display for a pianist overflowing with Lisztian bravura.

I stayed only for the first encore – Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90, No. 3 – and was left wondering just what future this musician has; the performance simply failed to convince in the way that it should, with all of Schubert’s simplicity of expression teased out into something much less appropriate. Mr Kissin is almost the reverse of the typical child prodigy: usually it is the technique which falters in later years, not the intellect. Much of this programme was conceived on high intellectual values but it was the intellect behind it that was largely missing. It maybe that Mr Kissin is beginning to believe in the cult status that has been lauded upon him by an uncritical audience; for some of us, however, something much greater is required: artistry.

Marc Bridle



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