Shortly after James Levine announced his resignation on March 2, Evgeny Kissin boosted many people’s spirits in his much anticipated appearance on the Celebrity Series of Boston At Symphony Hall. The juxtaposition in timing was uncanny, as the last time I saw Kissin was with Levine — a wild-haired pair — in a memorable all-Schubert two-piano recital, also in Symphony Hall. It was hard not to think of Maestro Levine’s painful infirmities while watching a slender former Wunderkind who, at thirty-nine years old, looks at most, twenty. Kissin has a worldwide devoted contingent of serious fans, and the Boston branch was out in force last night, the Russians cheering their hometown boy on, increasingly howling with delight as the evening progressed. To them, he is both forever young and perfect.
I first heard, and met, Evgeny Kissin thirteen years ago at a memorial service we were playing for a dear mutual friend. He played the Bach-Busoni Adagio, and for many years, I was sure I would never hear anything more beautiful. I played it on the harp, but the tragic grandeur he elicited was impossible to match. He was bereaved and every note of it said so.
Kissin carries the weight of a world’s worth of adulation: he’s received countless awards and honorary degrees and has made dozens of award-winning CDs, and his presenters can easily sell out any hall. He is a legend, in part because of his extremely precocious beginnings as a pianist. Unlike most of the classical music world, Kissin never had to participate in the demeaning world of competitions; he was just there, inordinately gifted, ready to wow. Known as a world-class Chopin player, Kissin seems to play music of extreme difficulty without breaking a sweat. He has now been playing in major venues for thirty years, and yet appears shy; he seems not to enjoy the process of walking out on stage until he reaches the piano. Pale, with a shorter haircut (no more ‘fro) he moves stoically to the piano, sits, plays. There are no facial expressions, just a formidable technique and the music.
Like many pianists this year, he chose to play an all-Liszt program. The audience, with the exception of a young woman who brought a single flower up to the stage, seems not really to interest him. The huge ovations are, at this point, routine. He’s got his encores prepared (magnificently). No big deal.
The concert opened with a beautifully controlled Étude No 9 in A-flat Major, “Ricordanza” from Études d’exécution transcendante, (composed in 1826, and in 1837-38 as Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini ; revised in 1851) a warm-up for Liszt’s revolutionary masterwork and warhorse, Sonata in b minor (composed in 1852-53 and published in 1854 with a dedication to Robert Schumann), which is showing up on, it seems, on every other piano recital this season. Kissin played it technically very well — this is hardly news — and there were thrilling moments, but at this recital it was his tender moments that were the remarkable ones. That he can toss off treacherous double octaves runs and most technical hurtles better than most is no surprise, but in the first half I wasn’t really moved, just impressed.
Things changed after intermission with a moving performance of Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a set of ten sacred and meditative subjects issued in 1853. are enchanting musical portraits of Liszt’s travels in Italy and Switzerland. “Valleé d’Obermann” from Première Année: Suisse in Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage, composed in 1835-36; revised in 1848-1853) What followed was a succession of works composed and played with great lyrical beauty from Venezia e Napoli: Supplement to Années de Pèlerinage Deuxième Année: Italie (composed in 1859, partially as a revision of an earlier set composed ca. 1840), made up of three gorgeous miniatures- “Gondoliera,” “Canzone,” and a terrifically played “Tarantella.” The audience went wild. Kissin obliged, providing four curtain calls, and played more beautifully than he had the whole evening. What followed made this a recital most people will remember the rest of their concert-going days, not for its flashy technique, but for its beauty: Schumann-Liszt “Widmung,” Schubert-Liszt “Soirées de Vienne Valse,and, finally, Liszt’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Liebesträume.” Many in the audience are still, I believe, walking on air.