This weekend Evgeny Kissin returned to Boston to join the BSO in performing Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Opus 16) and to repeat Fryderyk Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in e minor (he played the Chopin the last time he came). Oddly enough, each of these pieces were preceded in the program by a Franz Liszt work for orchestra, the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 for Orchestra and Liszt’s symphonic poem Orpheus. In the performance that I saw on Friday afternoon, April 1, it began well enough but ended with transcendence. (The concert repeats tonight and on Tuesday.)
The concert opened with the Liszt’s Waltz, a very imaginative and lively composition whose “Tanz in der Dorfschenke” depicts Faust’s seduction of a woman on her wedding day — a seduction facilitated by Mephisto’s performance on violin. Tamara Smirnova’s playing made Mephisto’s presence believable, but the movement really took on a delightfully demonic character at Elizabeth Ostling’s flute solo and the closing gesture from Jessica Zhou’s harp. Now that the diabolical pact had been made, it was time to bring out the virtuoso for Chopin’s First Concerto.
Chopin wrote his first concerto in 1830 and dedicated it to his friend, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, a piano teacher and virtuoso of his own right. Since then, the concerto has remained a vehicle for virtuosity.
Of Chopin’s three movements, Kissin’s performance in the second, “Romance-Larghetto” stood apart from the first and third. His phrasing and lyricism in the inner movement contrasted strongly with his technically masterful (but at times mechanical) interpretation in the outer movements. This is an interesting inversion of his legendary 1984 recording in which the middle movement seemed rushed but the outer movements were near perfect. Perhaps this warhorse has become a workhorse and should be put to pasture? Nevertheless, he is a virtuoso and his blistering cadenza that ended the third movement earned him his standing ovation.
After intermission came Liszt’s symphonic poem. One of his more introspective works, Liszt’s Orpheus is a formal amalgamation of a sonata and a movement-long crescendo. It is proto-Wagnerian in both its orchestration and thematic transformations. These aspects were handled wonderfully by conductor John Nelson, who crafted a well articulated dénouement from the orchestra with the perfect balance of restraint and indulgence. The harpists (Principal Jessica Zhou and the second, whose name was not in the program) deserve special mention for their warm consistency in maintaining this beautiful piece’s characteristic ambiance.
However, Nelson’s affectionate interpretation of Liszt was quickly forgotten as the lightning flashed when Kissin played the opening bars of the Grieg concerto. Written in 1868, and no less of a warhorse than the Chopin, Grieg’s concerto is a canonic work of epic proportions. Yet there was a freshness and palpable passion in Kissin’s articulation from the opening cadenza, a passion that carried straight through the entire work. This was uniquely apparent right away as Kissin took advantage of Grieg’s formal design (which he adopted from Robert Schumann) in which the primary theme is presented by the orchestra and then immediately by the soloist, instead of forcing the soloist to wait until the entire exposition has been played by the orchestra. This form sets the soloist and orchestra in stark dialogue and allows the drama of the concerto to begin early and in earnest. In this dialogue, Kissin’s vibrant tone carried the weight of the lyrical second theme with a remarkable ease that was barely matched by the Orchestra. Indeed, when Kissen arrived at the movement’s cadenza, it felt as though he had finally shaken the orchestra loose and was running free. As the movement came to a close, the atmosphere was electric. The second movement offered a respite from the fireworks, but the tone that Kissin drew from the piano was simply marvelous. In this movement the BSO performed incredibly well as partner/accompanist, thanks to Nelson’s blending, pacing and patient lyricism.
However, the finale surpassed all that came before. With his performance of the gigantic, majestic and yet simple dance theme Kissin conveyed a joie de vivre that was both intoxicating and contagious. Appropriately, at the final cadence the audience erupted with a thunderous applause that I’ve not heard in Symphony Hall in some time — especially this season. Kissin generously repaid the compliment with encores — two of them: his own transcription of Grieg’s Ich Lieb Dich and Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” It should be mentioned that while the encores were beautiful, the continuing rapturous applause that framed them was more due to the concerto than either of the encores. As a pianist, Kissin is at the top of his game, and when the work he plays is fresh to him, the outcome can be exhilarating.
As a final note, at the end of the second movement of the Chopin, in the quiet, as the audience and performers gathered themselves for the finale, a cellphone rang somewhere in the low-numbered seats between rows K and P. It was clearly audible to Kissin and who can tell how distracting it was for him? At intermission several of us agreed on two things: First, those who allow their cellphones to ring at a concert should be immediately marched to the scaffold, and second, the BSO is not doing enough to prevent this from happening. The audience is clearly not seeing or responding to the writing on the wall; perhaps an audible pre-concert announcement is merited.