IN: Reviews

Under Kissin’s Spell


Evgeny Kissin (Stu Rossner photo)
Evgeny Kissin (Stu Rossner photo)

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.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


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

  1. Spot-on review! It was a glorious concert. I don’t think Schubert’s sonatas in general are his A-grade material (except perhaps for the 19 and 21), and all of them need an editor. This one was no exception. Still, Kissin’s playing of it was dreamy, just as Ms. Miron so eloquently described. The Scriabin was exceptional. It was just a wonderful concert that felt like it lasted half an hour.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 19, 2014 at 7:25 am

  2. A wonderful account of a truly unforgettable performance. What incomparable Scriabin!

    Like last year’s titanic Celebrity Series recital – thank you, CS! – featuring 4 Schubert impromptus spun from pure gold, his D. 850 on Sunday was an unalloyed marvel of articulation. In particular, the opening Allegro vivace undulated with preturnatural clarity between its pointed, quasi-martial chord figures and the rollicking waves of scales and arpeggios, sweeping the listener along past the shores of time. True, others have approached the 2nd movement Con moto more efficiently, or more poignantly, but Kissin’s vision of it attained a heavenly spaciousness all its own.

    Let me interject here a view gently alternative to the informed and always interesting Mogulmeister: to my ears, there are several piano sonatas that find Schubert at his very best – D. 784, 845, 850, 894, and 958-60. None of them needs an editor, I think, but all require a superbly attuned and soulful pianist able to hurdle the many technical and structural challenges these works present.

    Myself, I have long felt a deep affinity for the piano music of Scriabin, many of whose preludes comprised my own first halting efforts at the keyboard. Although he was more inspired by Chopin than any other composer, the similarity of Scriabin’s works to Chopin has been perennially overstated. In fact, even his earliest pieces, though cast in Chopin’s endearing forms – prelude, etude, fantasy, impromptu, nocturne, waltz – are instantly recognizable for their distinctive harmonic and melodic approach. As his vision matured, he left the Polish composer far behind. (One wonders how Chopin might have received Scriabin’s 10th sonata, say, or ‘Vers la flamme’!)

    Apart from the Op 42 encore, Kissin’s selections on Sunday were all fairly early works, yet most throbbed with Scriabin’s uniquely fervid, almost erotic sensibility. In contrast to the awkwardness of his stage demeanor, Kissin’s playing was fluid, nimble, imbued with unearthly grace – in particular, as he brought the languidly psychedelic petals of the Sonata-Fantasy’s Andante to bloom.

    As the reviewer pointed out, it is now the case that every performance by this sovereign artist is an awesome and inspiring occasion – one is certain to hear pianism of unsurpassed lucidity, power, and majesty.

    Comment by nimitta — March 19, 2014 at 11:38 am

  3. Beautiful concert. Unearthly grace is right! There was a Russian family sitting in front of me — three generations, so enraptured; and they taught the youngest, a little girl, to go give a bouquet of flowers to Kissin (He was very pleased, could not repress a smile). I so like Nimitta’s invitation not to “overstate Scriabin’s similarity to Chopin.” The marvelous Sonata-Fantasy seemed to me to draw distantly on some of the hidden expressionistic aspects of Schumann. Perhaps I’m all wrong.

    Comment by Ashley — March 20, 2014 at 9:16 am

  4. Ashley: “The marvelous Sonata-Fantasy seemed to me to draw distantly on some of the hidden expressionistic aspects of Schumann. Perhaps I’m all wrong.”

    Ashley, I think you’re right. The motoric sweep of the Presto has a good deal more in common with the Schumann of the Concerto Sans Orchestre, In der Nacht from Fantasiestücke, or the Äußerst bewegt of Kreisleriana than any Chopin I can think of. As for the Andante, I hear echoes of the Andante espressivo variation of the Études Symphoniques.

    As Anatole Leikin wrote, “Scriabin’s fondness for Schumann was well known; as the circle of composers that Scriabin accepted was gradually becoming more and more constricted, he always declared that Schumann remained among his favorites.”

    Comment by nimitta — March 20, 2014 at 11:10 pm

  5. Nice review. I especially like your title.

    I attended his recital in SF – first time seeing Kissin live.

    His schubert left me think “huh?” for the past day. The first movement has a unique interpretation that i haven’t heard before. Unusually mild, un-orchestral, and yet feeling agitated from colors of those repeated chords – almost canon-like. There was no standing ovation going into interpretation.

    He lid up the room with his Scriabin. I agree with you that going into encores, he certainly looks like he’s having fun. He’s gleaming with so much pleasures that he’s more impatient to go back to the piano. More impatient than some first-row old ladies were to go home.

    All in all, his Bach Siciliana and Scriabin etudes performances is one to remember for a long time to come.

    Comment by Lynn — March 21, 2014 at 11:25 pm

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