By Lawrence B. Johnson
CHICAGO – Amid a dazzling new wave of Russian-born pianists, the most marvelous well may be the one who in the affections of audiences everywhere will be forever 16. But the shocking truth is that Evgeny Kissin has aged like the rest of us, and he’s now 46 years old. Season by season, the Wunderkind has grown before our eyes into Prometheus. In the full height, strength, and elegance of his art, Kissin came to Orchestra Hall on May 13 at the onset of a world tour with a recital of prodigious splendor.
It was an uncomplicated program: works by just two composers. But it spoke volumes about the pianist’s wherewithal – intellectual, technical, and, not least, physical. The first half offered Beethoven’s monumental Piano Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); the second part consisted of ten Preludes drawn from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 and Op. 32. And as this was Kissin, encores added a generous third portion.
He continues this Beethoven-Rachmaninoff program on tour at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. May 16, New York’s Carnegie Hall May 20, Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall May 25, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw June 17, and Luxembourg’s Philharmonie June 21. After a break, he picks it up again in October and November, with dates in Vancouver, San Francisco, Taipei, Hong Kong, Seoul, Yokohama, Tokyo, and Osaka – full details here.
It’s hard to imagine how Beethoven’s public must have reacted to the unprecedented scope and requirements – auditory as well as executive – of the Hammerklavier. Though it is the second of what we think of as Beethoven’s “late” sonatas, following the A-flat, Op. 101, his publisher Artaria saw the Hammerklavier as a turning point. In a note to the (unsuspecting) consumer, the editor observed that the work “will mark a new period in Beethoven’s piano compositions.”
Kissin’s expansive, probing performance cast the Hammerklavier in clear terms, essentially as Bach for a later age. From the outset of the grand-scaled opening movement, Kissin illuminated the contrapuntal textures that animate Beethoven’s narrative arc. In the context of the sonata’s vast design, the slight Scherzo is little more than an arabesque, though Kissin conveyed the needed sparkle in this sunny transition between the Olympian slopes of the first movement and the sprawling Adagio sostenuto that one might argue is the work’s most remarkable chapter.
In its timeless expanse and radiant affirmation, Kissin’s account of the Adagio gave the impression of an answer to Hamlet’s fearful question, “To be or not to be.” Here, the pianist displayed the poetic aspect of virtuosity, in perfectly gauged touch, luminous tone, and liquid phrasing. It was a third movement rather like that of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, where there is no fourth and all ends in quiescence. The embrace of Kissin’s playing was gentle, its spirituality immersive.
But Beethoven did write a finale, and what a consummation it is – a contrapuntal juggernaut, tremendous and thrilling. Is there any other music quite like it? Maybe the last movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This boggling essay, however, is for an orchestra of one, Bach bent through the prism of Beethoven and now refracted back in the means and imagination of Kissin. It was brilliant, dramatically charged, wondrously sustained, at once exhilarating and draining.
If Kissin might not have needed an intermission, the audience surely did. After which came the more readily digestible bites of Rachmaninoff Preludes and a delightful excursion with the pianist as unmitigated romantic.
Formidable virtuoso that he was, Rachmaninoff wrote the Preludes for his own use over the course of several years. In making a selection, Kissin was following the composer’s own programing practice. Rachmaninoff was a lad of 19 when he composed what would become the wildly popular Prelude in C-sharp minor. About a decade later, he wrote a cluster of ten more, his Op. 23, pursuing Chopin’s example of one piece in each of the 24 major and minor keys. The project was completed in 1910 with the 13 Preludes, Op. 32.
Kissin played Preludes 1 through 7 of Op. 23, each a colorful and deceptively demanding little essay suggesting a miniature tone poem, with big character swings from piece to piece, the melancholia of No. 1 in F-sharp minor giving way to the dark majesty of No. 2 in B-flat and the spectral minuet of No. 3 in D minor. Evocative portraiture distinguished Kissin’s playing no less than pianistic command. And in Preludes like the surging, broadly drawn No. 4 in D and No. 6 in E-flat, Kissin led his listeners into the familiar world of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos.
The printed program implied a break between the Preludes of Op. 23 and those of Op. 32, and so the pin-drop quiet audience burst into applause at the close of the first set – to the evident surprise of the pianist, who kept his hands poised over the keyboard and gave no acknowledgement of this noisy intrusion. But after his three selections from Op. 32 – begun and ended by the somber liquidity of No. 10 in B minor and No. 13 in D-flat, with a vivacious turn through No. 12 in G-sharp minor – the beaming pianist stood to accept the torrent of appreciation that poured down on him from upper balcony to listeners seated on stage.
And then commenced the encores. I recall a few years ago hearing Kissin at Carnegie Hall when he played encores for an hour. I clocked this postlude at 35 minutes. I thought there would be just two when, after a glittering Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1, Kissin announced from the stage that he would play his own Toccata – an absolute hoot of a piece that flies about the keyboard with driving Gershwineque syncopations and a recurring hint of “The Trolley Song” – you know, “Ding-ding-ding went the bell.”
But no, Kissin let the audience rave on a while longer, then announced “a Prelude by Rachmaninoff” – which was, of course, none other than the Prelude in C-sharp minor. That was an ideal capper. Or so I thought. As the audience was going nowhere, neither was Kissin, and so a grandly ruminative gift of Tchaikovsky’s “Méditation.”
And that was that. Though somewhat thinned by now, the audience began rhythmic clapping; some zealots even added a counterpoint of stomping. But Kissin only reappeared to take a final bow. A perennial recitalist in Chicago, he surely is the most beloved of all concert artists who visit Orchestra Hall. I wonder if that’s untrue anywhere.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.