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Beethoven, Chopin: Evgeny Kissin (piano). Barbican Hall, 7.3 2006 (CC)



I mean this in the nicest possible way. Wherever Evgeny Kissin comes from, I suspect it is not of this World. And while some people may find being called a 'star-child' complimentary, that's not quite what is at issue here. Hearing Kissin in this rather strange recital was like hearing someone who had only been told what human emotions are, someone who was aware of what they might be via a musical text (the score), but who had never experienced them. The technique was all there, wrong notes were a minumim (there were a few, plus the odd miscalculation of touch), but where, O where, had the music gone?


Two Beethoven Sonatas made up the first half. The C major Op. 2 No. 3 may perhaps be most notorious among pianists for those tricky semiquaver thirds in the initial gesture, but unsurprisingly they were not the problem here. Kissin is clearly used to projecting in large spaces - far larger than the Barbican, that's for sure. His fortes were so loud I began to wish I had ear-plugs (really, there is no exaggeration here). Does he think English people are deaf? This was big Beethoven, but big and harsh, with over-pedallings and little or no trace of Haydnesque charm mixed with Beethovenian energy. Hard, metallic semiquavers born of the Russian School mingled with a lack of insight that was mind boggling (astonishingly, there were distinct hints that Beethoven's voice-leading was lost on Kissin, too). The absence of any sort of inner commumion demeaned the Adagio, although at least he was unafraid of utilising the full resources of his Steinway (not all chordal voicing was accurate, though). If the catch-me-if-you-can of the scherzo succeeded (at last something) and the fingerwork of the finale was clearly phenomenal, it was far from enough to redeem him.


'Les Adieux' was not quite as loud – perhaps someone had had a word. There was subtlety, too – the bass entrance on a C natural at the opening was well shaded and it was a little reassuring to hear even Kissin struggle at a finger-breaking passage that I heard Arrau make light of, live at the RFH many years ago (around 1983/4). The implied crescendo at the end of the first movement (Beethoven writes it through a long note, a clear physical impossibility for a percussion instrument) almost worked, as did the late-Liszt allusions of the second ('Absence'). The finale caused no technical problems, and the 'horn calls' of the close were actually beautiful. Better- but Kissin is clearly no natural Beethovenian.


He's not a natural Chopin player either, come to think of it. All four Scherzos here, are something which greater pianists have programmed with success. But this was relentless Chopin – jaw-dropping fingerwork in the First (B minor) was really relentless as opposed to stormy and if there were playful moments, it remains debatable whether Kissin understood the tenderness of the major section (possibly based on a Polish carol). This was in fact, a prime example of the person 'dropping in' on human emotions thatI referred to in the opening paragraph.

Kissin's tendency to sway around in circles in the Second Scherzo was simply off-putting – it was rather like watching a vulture circling its prey (he sings, too, Pollini like, although he seems to have a slightly better voice). The lyrical melodies did not quite know what to do with themselves, so they just appeared and went away again.
If one listened open-mouthed (pardon the anatomical mixing!) at Kissin's octaves and fortissimi in the C sharp minor, and indeed at the depth of his chords (with basso obligato again) and the near-miraculous textures, it nevertheless remained clear that he was unwilling to go to the darker places that Chopin's music so clearly explores; similarly he was unable to realise the 'airy' staccato chords of the Fourth Scherzo.

Still, the audience loved it and there followed a succession of encores – a Szymanowski Etude (a little warmth, at last – too little, too late), a furious but test-tube Chopin C sharp minor Etude Op. 10/4 and a virtuoso Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10 (great glissandi). But ...
No, not really.



Colin Clarke




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