There is no other pianist like Evgeny Kissin. As he matures, (he is 41 but looks 21 still), the closest rival to his power and prodigious virtuosity is the memory of Vladimir Horowitz. His Symphony Hall recital at Symphony Hall was his eighth appearance here, for which his loyal fans and I thank the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Kissin began with Franz Schubert’s late Sonata in D Major, D. 850 (“Gasteiner”) written in 1825. Its subtitle comes from a stay he took in 1825 to Bad Gastein, a spa town in the Austrian Alps. Written at the same time as the Symphony in C Major (“The Great”), it was composed for Schubert’s friend Karl Maria von Bocklet. The second movement was ravishingly with a beautiful pearly sound in the upper register. Throughout this less-well-known sonata, which sparkled with colors and a huge range of dynamics, the audience was held spellbound.
Often in the evening Kissin seemed inward, dreamy. No matter how difficult, complex, or dramatic the music, he maintained his usual controlled, introspective stage persona. His pianissimos were breathtaking, his fortes infinitely graduated, the loudest almost volcanic, yet ever elegant and tasteful.
Kissin has as an abiding an affinity for Schubert as I do for his playing of it. My fondest Schubert/Kissin memory is of his 2005 duo recital (later released as a CD) in Symphony Hall with James Levine.
The second half was devoted to early keyboard works of Scriabin. First came the two-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Opus 19, one of the ten sonatas written between 1888 and 1892. The program notes by Aaron Grad point out that its “truncated structure” of only two movements, slow and fast, was, to Scriabin, a “Sonata Fantasy,” akin to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, the “Moonlight” Sonata, published as “a sonata in the manner of a fantasy.” Scriabin’s Second Sonata, with its virtuosic second movement representing “the vast expanse of ocean in stormy agitation,” was a favorite among Scriabin’s recital repertoire. His interpretation is preserved in a piano roll recorded in 1908.
Scriabin was deeply influenced by Chopin, particularly the two sets of twelve études. That influence was clear throughout the demonically difficult set Kissin culled from the dozen Scriabin wrote in 1894 (published as his Opus 8). Kissin dispatched these thrilling pieces with power and élan, transcendent beauty. Not a Scriabin fan before, I was astonished to fall hopelessly under his spell during the recital.
Although he’s been playing for adoring audiences for 30 years—since he was 12—Kissin never appears the slightest at ease or even pleased to be on stage until the encores. Sunday, we were treated to three. The first was a simple, elegant arrangement by pianist Wilhelm Kempff of Bach’s famous Siciliana from the Flute Sonata in E-flat. The hall fell silent in, I believe, bliss. I have only heard Kissin play Bach once, at a friend’s memorial fifteen years ago, and I have yet to hear more beautiful Bach. Then, another dazzling Scriabin, Étude No. 5, and, finally, the famous Chopin Polonaise in A-flat (Op.53). Many of us would have been happy with another half-dozen encores. Kissin gives concerts no one soon, if ever, forgets.