Evgeny Kissin returned to Boston in the Celebrity Series, performing with the Emerson String Quartet Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall. The word “performing” hardly captures the artistry and profound fluency with which the five consummate musicians brought to life works by Mozart, Fauré and Dvořák. The key is that they seemed genuinely to delight in making music together, playing for each other as much as for the loudly appreciative audience.
Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor K. 478 is one of the earliest and greatest piano quartets. At the time of its publication in 1785, the work cemented Mozart’s reputation as a talented composer who wrote very difficult music. Subtly enthused by Kissin’s darkly brooding piano, Philip Setzer (violin), Lawrence Dutton (viola) and Paul Watkins (cello) soared, not only in the commingling of the sublime and the beautiful in the opening allegro, but also in the moving, at times even elegiac second movement andante. In the final rondo, Kissin rendered the theme with a magical aura that combined with edgy dissonances in the viola to convey a host of conflicting emotions at the heart of human experience, the episodes by turns noble, dramatic, turbulent. They put all of Mozart into the quartet — lyrical, tragic, ecstatic and wise.
The Fauré Piano Quartet No. 1 Op. 15 in C Minor, rounded out the first half of the program. Written at a time when his beloved Marianne Viardot called off their engagement, it is often said to reflect his state of mind at the time. As performed by Kissin and Emerson Quartet, this time with Eugene Drucker on violin, Fauré’s Quartet No. 1 seemed infinitely deep, evoking Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre in the passionately stormy first movement. The second movement scherzo was tinged with a hint of barbarity that gave it an unusual power.
The third movement adagio, was rendered with aching beauty. Against the brooding strings, Kissin’s piano felt like tears of grace sublimating into incense before us. The final movement allowed fragile new life to return after devastation, moving slowly upward and forward. The musicians communicated the rich complexity of Fauré’s vision directly but effortlessly — or rather they had concentrated massive effort on a shared exegesis that seemed to be discovered as they played.
After a festive intermission during which we were treated to miniatures cupcakes coiffed with lemon crème and chocolate, we heard the Dvořák Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81. The Quintet was well-received from its première in 1887 on and became one of Dvořák’s most frequently performed works, an ideal synthesis of European classical tradition and skillfully framed Slavic folk elements. The five musicians shrewdly interpreted the opening Allegro to be more declarative than expressive – to be, in fact, performative, in the sense of bringing about a new reality, here flavored with heroism, adding energy and conviction that hinted at frenzy. The wild mood swings of the second movement Dumka were as sudden and dramatic as multiple personality shifts, with Kissin’s piano verging on Rachmaninoff at moments, suggesting a mysterious connection. The scherzo “furiant” was remarkably convincing, tender and rural, robust and precarious. Most notable in the final allegro was the rendering of the fugue, with a nicely gritty timber in Lawrence Dutton’s viola, and a marvelous sense of a sort of star-crossed momentum before the return of the Kissin’s pensive piano. The final cadence was rendered with a masterful unity in which all five voices managed to vibrate individually. The massive audience packing Symphony Hall rose to its feet in loud appreciation, acknowledging playing that was as good as it gets. Their long and thunderous applause earned us a delightful encore – the rollicking/frightening scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. It was good to see Kissin back, and it was great to see him enjoy playing again.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.