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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Five Preludes Op.15 [7’13]
Sonata No.3 Op.23 in F sharp minor [20’42]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951]

Sonata-Reminiscenza Op.38 No.1 [16’09]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1951)

Three Movements from Petroushka [15’39]
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
rec. SWR Studio, Freiburg, Germany, 7-8 August 2004. DDD
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876 65390-2 [59’55]

After such phenomenal early success, I suppose it was inevitable that Evgeny Kissin’s career would meet a ‘blip’. Actually, it’s only really happened regarding some recent recordings, and even then only because of the standards he set himself with early ones, such as the Carnegie debut and his Brahms Paganini Variations disc. The combination of barnstorming virtuosity and mercurial temperament were well displayed there, and they are now very much on show with this excellently programmed all-Russian recital.

Kissin really is on home territory with this music. His Chopin credentials are needed with the early Scriabin Preludes, which pay homage to the Polish master in a number of ways – indeed, they sound at times like ‘wood chippings from the master’s workbench’ - to quote Simon Rattle on the young Schoenberg’s Wagnerisms. They are attractive, tuneful miniatures that hardly prepare you for the more mature Scriabin to come, except maybe in their improvisatory freedom. The composer gave the Sonata’s premiere in 1900, adding what became a trademark-type subtitle ‘Soul States’. Kissin delves deeply into this soul, revelling in the murky harmonic waters and blurring of bar lines that are becoming evident as the composer experiments with form and content. The work is clearly structured in four movements, but there is a rhapsodic freedom and wildness that Kissin captures beautifully, showing a touch more abandon than the otherwise excellent Håkan Austbø on his very recommendable set of the complete sonatas (Brilliant Classics). The slow third movement boasts one of Scriabin’s most memorable tunes, a shimmering, luminous figuration that Kissin turns into something characteristically ecstatic. It’s a marvellous performance that fully realizes the composer’s description of the sonata as ‘a tender and melancholy sea of feeling’.

Talking of melancholy, I’ve never fully subscribed to the Richard Taruskin view of Nikolai Medtner as ‘a poor man’s Rachmaninoff’, though comparison with that other great composer-pianist is almost inevitable when you hear Medtner’s music. The one-movement Sonata-Reminiscenza has a wistful nostalgia that inhabits a similar emotional terrain, but then so much Russian music does. Kissin is alive to the many varied mood-swings and harmonic nuances that make Medtner’s best music really very attractive. It’s Russian playing in the best sense and when I played Grigory Ginsberg’s classic account (Philips Great Pianists series) the inherited tradition, split hands and all, seemed obvious.

You would think that Kissin’s technical command would suit Stravinsky’s Petroushka Movements to perfection and, for the most part, it’s as successful and thrilling as it ought to be. This work has been dominated on disc by Pollini’s staggering account on DG, still available as part of a recital of 20th Century piano music. There have been other pretenders to the crown, notably Lortie and Donohoe, but none has ever displaced Pollini’s electrifying blend of rock-steady rhythmic stability and technical accuracy, even in the face of near-insane pianistic demands. Kissin is very different here, not afraid to use lashings of pedal (which Pollini keeps to a minimum) and his own unique rubato. He allows the music to breathe more than Pollini, whose ice-cool clarity does suit the music but is a shade unyielding and hard. One feels an organic growth and I was more aware with Kissin of this being virtually a sonata rather than a series of showcase encores. It’s very hard to get Pollini out of your head with this piece, so authoritative is his account, but Kissin is definitely more warmly recorded and on a better-sounding instrument, so it’s perhaps best seen as a viable alternative by another great pianist of our time.

Liner notes by Steven Wigler are good and, as mentioned, the recording does not let the side down. Despite being short-ish measure by today’s standards, this disc finds the young Russian on commanding and imperious form.

Tony Haywood

 

 



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