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Kissin Wows Symphony Hall


Evgeny Kissin (file photo)
Evgeny Kissin (file photo)

A full house at Symphony Hall late Sunday afternoon got what they came for and more—a world-class recital by one of the biggest names in piano, then five impressive encores. Evgeny Kissin opened his Celebrity Series program with Haydn’s Sonata No. 59 in E -flat Major, Hob. XVI:49 before launching into Beethoven’s last piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111.

His Haydn was pure classicism, emphasizing long phrases and structure. An ever-clear melodic line—though occasionally a bit piercing—was animated by perfectly articulated harmonies in their variety of forms, from octave and chord, to arpeggio and Alberti bass. In particular, in the last movement minuet Kissin took no small pleasure in his perfect articulation of the double-note figure in the left hand, juxtaposed against triplets in the right, and then later the triplets over triplets. It was fun to hear, given Kissin’s concentration and focus, and his clear conception of the work. The work was rhythmically and structurally driven.

While he might have had gone for more contrast between, say, the presentation of the opening two motifs in the first movement of the Haydn—the first sharply rhythmic, the next more of a lyrical response—Kissin was more interested in contrast on a bigger scale, within this work as well as between the textural and dramatic differences between the two classical sonatas that comprised the opening half.

I was really looking forward to his Beethoven, and what a pleasure it was to hear, Kissin’s extraordinary technique allowing him to focus so much on architecture and mass, scale and drama. This was serious musicmaking.

The many tempo changes indicated in the score of the first of the two movements in this sonata, the Maestoso, can make for a jerky or just plain bizarre-sounding event, interpreted too literally, or ignored. Kissin’s panoramic vision of the work brought intensity with a solid rhythmic integrity (crucial in the slow introduction), elasticity of phrase but with incredible drive (particularly in those passages where the hands are playing in-sync 16th notes), and no small amount of contained rage (considerably more than in his Beethoven encore that was to come).

Post-introduction, the brutal, even ugly three-note motive—part of a larger motivic structure, wrought in part to yield fugal fruit in its development—has an emphatic sforzando on the 3rd note. Kissin emphasized the sforzando not only with due force but with time, stretching the line just enough to give more the musical idea a specific character and specific gravity. Then he took off, no holding back, but everything under absolute control. Ugliness was made beautiful, rage dissipated before the condensed, peaceful, and seemingly all too soon closure to this first movement.

In reading about op. 111, I was struck by Martin Cooper’s comments, particularly comparing it with an earlier Sonata in C Minor, the Pathetique, op. 13:

In both of these slow introductions Beethoven ‘hurls defiance’ (as the old commentators used to say) at the world or its creator. The harmony of both is concerned in the first place with the diminished seventh, introduced immediately in op. 111 and after a more discreet tonic passage in op. 13; and after that with a rigorously controlled sequence of chromatic modulations leading in each case with a cadenza-like gesture into the main body of the movement. It is significant that in op. 13 Beethoven engages in a manifest dialogue, with fortissimo chords in the bass answered by an eloquently pleading phrase in the treble, while in op. 111 we have a monologue. Whereas the young man exteriorized the struggle in himself, dramatizing his ‘opponent’ as a force outside himself, one whom it was possible to defy or placate, middle age brought the knowledge that this opponent was his own dark shadow, a rejected aspect of his own self still sharing with him a common identity. If this first movement is in fact an expression of heroic resistance, Beethoven has long outgrown the dates (if they ever really existed) when he played at being Prometheus and defying the Almighty.

The opening five bars of op. 111 are a cry of agony rather than a shout of defiance, and they are followed by a wonderful five bars in which Beethoven seems to looking with tender amazement at his how human wretchedness, turning it in his hands as though to discover its meaning.

*Martin Cooper, Beethoven: The Last Decade 1817 to 1827, Oxford University Press, London, 1970.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the past week’s events in Boston.

The slow movement of the Beethoven Op. 111, the Arietta, was beautifully rendered. Kissin’s rhythmic integrity and panoramic perspective were again crucial, as the variations began to unfold, first with utter simplicity, then with a metric accretion of notes, jazzy syncopated arpeggios giving way to undulating 32nd and 16th note triplets, then a mystical pulsing melodic figure, morphing into stratospheric trills with time standing still before gorgeous resolution as the final variation begins, combining many of the developmental elements introduced in the earlier variations: 32nd note triplets combined with trills as the melody unfolds and climbs. A poignant, chromatic appoggiatura introduces two of the near final iterations of the main motif before ascent and then descent, then simple resolution.

William Kinderman, in his notes on Barenboim on Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (EMI DVD collection), writes: “Various commentators have rightly perceived a philosophical and even religious dimension in this great work. The dichotomy embodied in the two movements of Op. 111 has been variously described in terms of ‘Samsara and Nirvana’ (pianist Hans von Bülow), the ‘Here and Beyond’ (pianist Edwin Fischer), ‘Resistance and Submission’ (writer Wilhelm von Lenz) or the real and mystical world.” And, ‘Defiance and Acceptance.’ Kissin seems to have an extra-musical, personal program, as compass for navigating this complex work. On a plane of pure music making, Kissin’s performance was commanding.
A much-needed post–op.111 pause came in the form of intermission, followed by a mix of four impromptus from the two sets of four Schubert impromptus and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 in C-sharp Minor, S. 244.

Kissin’s impromptus were especially well received. All were delivered with grace, some aristocratic (and other) flourishes, a Schubertian prettiness, occasional innocence, and pathos. Add to that Kissin’s perfectly judged balance—the ability to produce exactly what sound he wants from the piano, as well as his unerring rhythm, and this reception is easily explained.

The first of these, the Impromptu in F Minor, D. 935, Opus 142, no. 1, had every sound and phrase in perfect juxtaposition. No small piece, the impromptu presents challenges with the repetition of so much material, giving temptation to over-interpret or over-edit, or rush. Kissin stayed the course and played this as I might imagine Schubert would have played it.

A set of variations, the Impromptu in B-flat Major, D. 935, opus 142, no. 3, set on a really straightforward little theme, was the highlight for me. He brought a potentially banal tune to life, with loads of variety and nuance.

The two Op. 90 impromptus are better known than the Op. 142 impromptus, though all were written about the same time. The Impromptu in G-flat Major, D. 899, opus 90, no. 3 was lovely, with beautiful arcs of melodic line and phrasing. But why did Mr. Kissin feel it necessary to play the melodic line ahead of the bass? This was initially disturbing, but because he was so consistent in this interpretation, it was easy to adjust.

More gorgeous sounds were produced in the Impromptu in A-flat Major, D. 899, opus 90, no. 4. The arpeggios in the right hand shimmered throughout, and the melody soared. But early on, when the melody, with its accented 2nd note, is combined with the shimmering arpeggios, Kissin chose once again to use time (as in the Beethoven) to stress an accent. And the result was that the arpeggios had a tiny stutter. Odd, but not too disruptive. Again, he was absolutely consistent in his interpretation, allowing the listener to adjust. This is small stuff. The set of four impromptus as a group was lyrical, lovely, and beautifully conceived.

What a treat to hear someone of Kissin’s caliber then toss off the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 in C-sharp Minor, S. 244 with so much power and grace, so much ease. Rich textures at times, but never over pedaled. What can you possibly do after this? Well, if your standing-room-only and stubbornly risen audience simply won’t leave, you’d best come up with a few encores. And maybe try to smile, which Kissin did succeed in doing by the final, 5th encore.

The many encores…

The first, Gluck (Sgambati) “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo & Euridice. When Kissin finally sat down to play a first encore, the hushed silence was impressive, after so much applause. This quiet, stately tune, was a perfect foil for the Liszt Rhapsody and the applause, poignantly expressive, with a bright, piercing melody.

But, after several more trips off stage and back, we were given more Liszt, the Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor. Kissin upstaged himself, with the most astonishing display of piano fireworks I have witnessed. Incredible velocity, power, and accuracy, at times as if frozen shards of sound were coming from his piano.

After several more returns to the stage, he gave us the fabulous merger of Schubert/Liszt/Kissin in the Schubert (Liszt) Trout Quintet. Then, a most astonishing performance of Chopin’s Prelude, No. 24 in D minor, Chopin’s final Prelude. The sound here was immense, filling the hall, the small work full of darkness and anger, the final three notes rendered as percussively as possible, without hope. Finally, Kissin relented and consented to a fifth encore, Beethoven’s Rondo a Capriccio, Op. 129 “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” Crystal-clear while every note was hammered loud. It was fast, fun, furious, and funny. Relentless but utterly musical, an astonishing display of endurance, agility, and musicianship.

Still, after all the jaw-dropping pyrotechnics and power, what I will remember most is how he chose on this day to come to terms with Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111.

As amazing as his Liszt playing may be, I’ll look to forward next year when Evgeny Kissin returns as part of the Celebrity Series on Sunday, March 16th at Symphony Hall with perhaps some more Beethoven, and some Chopin.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. JM: A belated thank-you for this clear and accurate analysis of the Kissin concert. What strikes me as special about his playing is that when he plays a piece it is not just a performance but an event that becomes part of the historical record, creating an enveloping sphere is sound, a world in itself.

    Comment by Leon Golub — April 26, 2013 at 8:28 am

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