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Liszt: Evgeny Kissin (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 13.2.2011 (MB)

Etudes d’exécution transcendante
, S.139, no.9: ‘Ricordanza’

Sonata in B minor, S.178

Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173: ‘Funérailles’

Années de pèlerinage: Book I, ‘Suisse’, S.160, ‘Vallée d’Obermann’; ‘Venezia e Napoli,’ S.162 (supplement to Book II, ‘Italie’)


What a strange pianist Evgeny Kissin is! Not that his legion of fans seemed to notice, or indeed to care: if this was not quite Lang Lang hysteria, then it contrasted starkly with the reception granted, say, Maurizio Pollini in his recent Bach recital, which musically stood on an altogether more exalted level. Kissin has little in common, I hasten to add, with the meretricious Lang: a crude circus act, Liberace without the jokes – or the style. Yet, given that Kissin will reach forty later this year, the shortcomings – and like everything else he does, they are remarkably consistent – ought to concern all but the least discerning listener; they can no longer be explained away as something that greater experience will necessarily impart to an indubitably gifted prodigy.

First, let it be said that Kissin certainly has the technique for Liszt. Pretty much every bar of his recital proclaimed that, contrasting with the plodding offerings of completist Leslie Howard’s recital last month. The opening Ricordanza, Liszt’s ninth Transcendental Study, displayed Kissin’s technique to excellent advantage. Not only could he execute Liszt’s increasingly extravagant, though never empty, roulades with a glorious range of colour; the clarity with which he did so was quite extraordinary. He can certainly turn a melody too. Yet ultimately, there was aloofness too, or that was how it seemed at first: as time went on, one realised that what was lacking was any sense of feeling for what the composer was saying. What did it all mean? I was still asking that question by the time of the first encore, the Schumann-Liszt Widmung.

The B minor Sonata would prove a greater test, of course, and here, once again despite the technique, one could only ask what was at stake, for nothing much seemed to be. This was no Faustian and/or Christian struggle for life and death. We could argue until the next Liszt centenary about the presence or not of a programme to Liszt’s crowning masterpiece for piano, but there was not the slightest sense that such issues had occurred to Kissin. Where were the metaphysics? His virtuosity was properly transcendental, but for Liszt, this is but a starting point, a means of beating mere virtuosi at their own game in order to achieve musical ends. Much of Kissin’s rendition was mercilessly hard driven. Even the exposition’s second group opened in unyielding fashion; it melted later, but one never sensed that this was felt, that it happened for any reason other than because this was how he played it. Some of the big chords merely sounded brutal. A rare finger-slip in the fugato served mainly to demonstrate the excellent technique elsewhere, but this was a glittering display rather than a human statement that wrestled with the divine. Needless to say, the notorious recapitulation double octaves held no fears for the pianist, but is it not preferable that, in some sense at least, they should? Ultimately, Liszt’s great formal and dramatic achievement sounded like a giant transcendental study or, better, a series of studies.

was more suited, despite its undeniable emotional content, to Kissin’s approach. For one thing, the sheer volume he elicited from the instrument would have put most pianists to shame. Though he remained detached, the sense of an elegy observed was not entirely inappropriate for Liszt. Yet even here, and more so in the following Vallée d’Obermann, every aspect of the performance, not least Kissin’s rubato, seemed so calculated that there was an impression of a pianist imprisoned. Technique staggered, but is wonder observed (or dictated?) wonder at all?

The three pieces of Venezia e Napoli summed up the problem. In Gondolieri, rhythm was perfectly judged, which sadly meant that it did not quite work, for it should sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘judged’. We are dealing with a gondola rather than an oligarch’s yacht. Liszt’s fioritura was despatched with extraordinary control and clarity, but what did it mean? The Canzone sounded darkly passionate, but whose passion was it? Finally, the Tarantella’s opening suited Kissin to a tee: the way he despatched Liszt’s challenges was straightforwardly stunning. The central section, however, sounded – reader, you will have guessed it – observed rather than experienced, and the final material, in which characteristics of both earlier sections need to be combined, reproduced the first virtue and the second void. In a concerto, a conductor can fill in some of the gaps; in a recital, or at least in this recital, the listener who is not a hollering fan remains acutely aware of what is missing.

Mark Berry

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