To support Ukraine in the midst of its defensive war with Russia, Yevgeny Kissin headlined a a sold-out benefit at Jordan Hall last Wednesday. The afternoon did not follow the usual concert format, rather, it presented the artist as a deeply committed humanist as well as a composer and pianist.
Essentially, it was a discussion about democracy and freedom, the role of the artist in society (apolitical) and finally, about the piano. The pianist recalled growing up Jewish in Russia, as a member ‘of its most hated minority.’ He then expressed outrage with Putin’s abhorrent tyranny and his maniacal, criminal war in the Ukraine. The discussion ended with Kissin’s praising the US as ‘a beacon of freedom in the world’.
When the talk finally turned to music, Kissin rejected the idea that there is a Russian School of Piano Playing. He emphasized that his musical insight is derived from the written page. ‘If I want to know how to play Mozart, I go to Mozart.’ (Meaning he consults respected editions)
In opening the musical portion, the Borromeo String Quartet gave the Boston debut of Kissin’s String Quartet , Op 3 in four distinct sections; Adagio liberamente, Allegro inquieto, Largo dramatico and Pensierosamento, mantanendo strettamente il ritmo puntato (Trans.: Thoughtfully, but in strict tempo). Stylistically it suggests a musician who grew up in Russia, hearing the modernisim of Shostakovich and Gubaidulina. Though dissonance and rhythmic drive are abundant, the work also reveals the composer’s wonderful lyricism, beautifully enriched by the elegant strings of the Borromeo.
Finally, the artist presented a brief all-Chopin program consisting of the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31, the Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 Heroic. The consummate master of keyboard lyricism, dynamic sound and extraordinary technique brought freshness, surprise and beauty to this music. Watching and listening to Kissin was a piano lesson for all the Conservatory students in the audience.
He achieved a big sound, an orchestral sonority, using the physical power of torso and arm weight. Softer dynamics were executed with delicacy and grace, as in the opening triplets of the Scherzo, by maintaining a relaxed, supple hand. And the gorgeous A-major melody, using a pure singing tone, sounded sublime.
The ‘Heroic’ A-flat Major Polonaise, which the pianist performs at all benefits for the brave Ukrainians, again blended power with ease. Like the Scherzo, this technically challenging work came across with tonal and technical perfection.
For an encore, ‘something quiet’, the intimate Op. Posth. waltz in A Minor ended the inspiring afternoon.