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Fantastical Liszt 1: a recital by Evgene Kissin (piano) at Santa Cecilia, Rome 20.1.2011 (JB)

[This is the first part of a piece on Liszt; the second and final part will appear in these web pages following the recital of Mario Brunello (cello) and Andrea Lucchesini (piano) at Santa Cecilia, Rome, on 25 February 2011. JB]

Of all the categories into which members of Western Society can be placed, there is probably none more revealing and entertaining than to ask whether the particular individual operates with a single or multiple voice. The President of the United States and his immediate predecessor provide strikingly clear examples of the two types. George W. Bush has a single voice which is intricately informed by a religious faith; the ex-President’s burning sincerity and faith are the source of his voice and whatever the situation, this is the voice he uses and is much admired by his followers for what they see as his integrity. Barak Obama has so many different voices depending on the people or situations which he is addressing; he appears to have unlimited empathy toward (i.e. can identify with) countless problems, so that it must appear to his enemies that he has no real thoughts of his own, only his deft, chameleon-like responses in areas in which he finds himself.

In the interest of clarity, I have slightly exaggerated the two types. But not much. We probably all have a little of the other voice type within us. But everyone you know has an identifiable leaning towards one or the other. Just think about it.

When it comes to the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century, the single voice, roaring or whispering in new-found freedoms, reigns supreme. In music, just think of Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner or Brahms: all vastly different, but all instantly recognisable for the single, identifiable, musical voice with which they each unmistakably speak.

Liszt is another matter. It is the chameleon-like response to the musical ambience in which he finds himself which produces his music. His relationship to his piano was like no other, profoundly physical, almost animalistic. Like other piano composers, he composed at the piano. But with Liszt, the sounds were right when they
felt right: under the fingers, that is. He explored a whole new world of sound in a kinaesthetic sense. However difficult Liszt is to play, he is always what is called pianistic. Schubert, to take another composer, is frequently not. What Schubert writes may satisfy the ear but it often fails to satisfy the fingers. Liszt’s physical contact with the keyboard is nothing less than sexy. He coaxes sound from the instrument by touch. Any would-be pianist of Liszt has to enter into this intimate relationship with his instrument.

Let’s pause there. Evgene Kissin does just that. However, it took him time to get to it at a recent Rome concert.

A flashback is in order here. In the eighties, I was the British Council’s Arts Officer in Italy and Clifford Curzon made one of his very rare Rome appearances for a Mozart concerto at Santa Cecilia. I was informed by Head of Music in London that Sir Clifford was of a highly nervous disposition, especially in places where he didn’t speak the language and would I therefore agree to meet his train (he never flew) and minister to his needs. On arrival, he was nervous but friendly and said, as we were on the way to the hotel, that he must get to the hall two hours ahead of the rehearsal and familiarise himself with the piano. At that time, the Accademia were proud of a new Steinway they had just bought. He tried it out. He then walked to the back of the platform and tried out the Steinway which had been assigned to retirement.
Would you please arrange for these two pianos to be switched over, he said, and then added with a merry twinkle, We’ll leave that new Steinway to the young lions. I like a piano that I play, not one that plays me.

Kissin is a recognised young lion. All the same, when his playing is at its best, it takes the Curzon approach. On this occasion he handled the piano like a whore. At first, he was not getting any response but by the end of the recital he was seducing sounds from the whore that you will not hear from any other pianist on today’s scene. Was there ever such a sexy recital! And here is the quintessential Liszt.

It doesn’t diminish the emphasis on the physical side of Liszt’s playing to add that this unique contact with the key was also obeying an outstanding musical imagination; it is, in fact, the
connection between the two – the physical with the imaginative - which created – and which, as I hope to show - continues to create his music. Fantastic Liszt is somehow insufficient for such a tall bill. Fantastical Liszt gets nearer to the mark.

Franz Liszt was unapologetically a showman. This was central to his art. His Hungarian side has been much overplayed, not least by himself. He never spoke the language or lived in that country, except for his first years, when he had the accident of being born there to a German speaking family in which the lowly father happened to be in the service of Prince Esterhazy. Liszt senior spoke Hungarian only when he had to deal with the peasants and could hardly wait to whisk his hugely talented son off to Vienna, where further Germanistic cultural influences awaited him.

The Hungarian Rhapsodies are much better understood as Vulgarian Rhapsodies: unashamed pianistic romps with a few simplistic Hungarian dance rhythms as their starting point. But what holds our interest is not Hungarian, but the outrageously skilled pianism which has been ingeniously turned into a pianistic circus. Liszt was neither the first nor last to make great art out of vulgarity. The crowd-pleasing aspect would have made some blush. It did so with the mother of his children. But Liszt thrived on it, much to Marie’s dismay. He was the original pub pianist, if you like. (This, among other things, I’d better add.)

Evgene Kissin is no stranger to showmanship either. It is a skill he wears naturally. Still, the kindest remark to make about the first part of his Rome recital (Transcendental Study no. 9 and the Sonata) is to see it as a warm-up exercise. After the interval, and the tuner had made adjustments, it sounded like another pianist on another piano. This brings us back to the all-important Lisztian consideration of the relationship of the pianist to his instrument. At first, I was puzzled. Then it became alarmingly clear. Kissin had not properly familiarised himself with the instrument before he began.

There were some unpardonably ugly sounds in the first part. It is relatively easy to make a beautiful quiet sound on a piano. But a beautiful loud sound is much more difficult. All the cascades of quiet arpeggios and runs were exquisitely realized, even in the first part. But beautiful loud sounds are rarer (Curzon and Alicia de Larrocha were both masters) for the simple reason of the piano’s mechanism, whereby the hammer has to arrive against the string much faster to produce the tone and is therefore more difficult to control. This would normally be no problem for Kissin’s technical wizardry, but in part one, as he failed to coax the right sound from the keyboard, he got more and more aggressive, and so, more ugly.

The hall’s acoustic is particularly telling. And he failed in this calculation too. I would like to describe the opening of the Sonata as daring. He played it without pedal. But in this acoustic, that doesn’t work. It was too dry. The rests have to be played as though they are notes of an integral part of the melodic line. But Kissin chopped them up into meaninglessness.

One melody is born out of another in the Sonata. The best performances sound as though they are being woven before your ears: the essential Liszt improvisational allusion. Some of this came through from Kissin’s fingers. But sadly, they were rare moments. He would often smash into the keys as though with a desire to bring down the entire edifice. The ugly aggression was rearing its head again.

Multi-voiced Liszt will introduce you to more characters than a Shakespeare play in the course of an evening’s piano recital. The composer himself has a strong claim to being the inventor of the piano recital as we know it today. Moreover, he held the view that the audience had a right to meet as many musical personalities as possible, with the personality of the chap at the keyboard being kept in the background as well as firmly in charge of the ship. In this sense, the pianist has to be understood as an actor. But in the strict Stanislavsky sense: he must
become each of the characters into which he transmutes himself.

Evgene Kissin assumes these musical personalities with almost unbelievable virtuosic ease; they are all there in the boy’s fibre, just waiting to be drawn out. (I must stop writing
boy: I see he is going to be forty in October.) Liszt was anxious that his pupils should not be copies of himself; that every pianist should find his own approach and his own sounds, arrived at through discoveries of his relationship with the instrument. Once Kissin stopped his useless efforts to dominate his instrument and began his discovery of its sounds, we were involved with him in an incomparable musical adventure.

Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, which opened the second part, is a study in various colours of expressive playing. I was always grateful, as a student, to Douglas Mews, for pointing out to me that the instruction espressivo is strictly related to how the Italians make coffee: in an espresso it is the boiling water and steam which forces the flavour through the freshly ground coffee beans. Kissin is too young to have known Dr Mews, but never has an audience heard such flavours so pungently extracted from these notes.

Valléè d’Obermann was similarly expressive, but the greatest accomplishment of this second part was the finale: Venezia e Napoli with its three movements, Gondoliera, Canzone, Tarantella. Kissin brought the Italy of Liszt alive like no other pianist (and more on this subject in the second part of these notes). An ideal musical trailer for someone who doesn’t know the country. Pithy, seductively romantic and at times, genuinely vulgar: in a word, authentic Liszt.

Both encores were transcriptions: of the Schumann
Widmung and Schubert Soirées de Vienne. Evgene Kissin gently led us through the souls of Schumann as well as Schubert. Liszt would have been proud of him.

Jack Buckley

World copyright reserved - 24 January 2011


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