Arts & Events

New: Superb Piano Recital by Evgeny Kissin

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday October 15, 2018 - 06:33:00 PM

Until Sunday, October 14, I had never heard Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin perform live. Thus I looked forward with high anticipation to this October 14 recital as part of San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performer Series. I was not disappointed. Kissin lived up to his reputation. Here is a pianist who lets his formidable technique and interpretive sensitivity do all the talking. There is no flair here, little charisma, and none of the demonic element of, say, my current favorite young pianist, Daniil Trifonov. Evgeny Kissin, who at age 47 is twenty years older than Daniil Trifonov, is all business when he sits down at the keyboard and begins to play.  

For this recital, Kissin began with two Nocturnes by Frederic Chopin. If I found Chopin’s Nocturne in F minor, Opus 55, no. 1 from 1843 an odd choice to open a recital, it is simply because the minor key and almost funereal opening theme set a rather gloomy mood. Kissin’s playing, however, left nothing to be desired, neither in the slow, almost hesitant opening nor in the more lively middle section. As for the finale, well, it tidied things up. Much more interesting was Chopin’s Nocturne in E Major, Opus 62, no. 2 from 1846. This was expansive music, fluid, and affirmative in a bright major key. Kissin navigated this demanding piece with considerable aplomb.  

Next came Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Opus 14 (premiered in 1836 and revised in 1853). Schumann’s piano music can sometimes seem overworked. There is a little of this quality in his Sonata No. 3 in F minor; but in Evgeny Kissin’s hands every note seemed to fit together with every other note, and the melodic element stood out clearly. The opening Allegro brillante, a demanding movement, was handled effortlessly by Kissin. Likewise for the ensuing, energetic Scherzo. The Quasi variazioni movement featured four variations, all expertly delivered by Kissin. The Finale, an impassioned sixteen pages of music, was performed at breakneck speed by Kissin, who scrupulously followed the composer’s tempo markings in the score. (Incidentally, Kissin played the entire recital from memory, without recourse to scores.) 

After intermission Evgeny Kissin turned his attention to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Preludes for Piano. Included were selections from Rachmaninoff’s Ten Preludes, Opus 23 from 1903, and from Thirteen Preludes, Opus 32, from 1910. These Rachmaninoff Preludes were for me the heart and soul of the recital. What a vast range of moods, emotions, technical demands, and demands of musicianship are here explored by Rachmaninoff! Evgeny Kissin proved himself more than equal to the task in every respect. The opening Opus 23 Prelude No. 1 in F-sharp minor was suitably melancholy and subdued. For sheer difficulty, Prelude No. 2 in B-flat Major could hardly be topped; but Evgeny Kissin’s awesome technique made playing this demanding piece seem effortless. Prelude No. 3 in D minor was elegantly performed. One of the true highlights of the recital was Kissin’s playing of Prelude No. 4 in D Major. Here the dreamy opening theme was expansive, the ensuing melodies were effusive, and the overall lyrical quality of this piece was beautiful to behold.  

Turning to selections from Rachmaninoff’s Thirteen Preludes, Opus 32, Kissin chose to begin with No. 10 in B minor, a tentative, halting piece inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist painting The Homecoming, that offers a metaphorical depiction of approaching death. Next came Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp minor offering a wintry mood with a languidly falling melody and considerable counterpoint. Kissin gave an impressive rendition of this popular piece. To close out the scheduled portion of this recital, Kissin played Prelude No. 13 in D-flat Major. Here Evgeny Kissin was able to show off the triumphal side of his keyboard personality, as this piece develops from initial hesitancy to an all-out triumphant conclusion.  

Evgeny Kissin received a lengthy, enthusiastic standing ovation from the appreciative Davies Hall audience. By way of an encore, Kissin played a quiet piece by Robert Schumann, most likely from the composer’s Kinderszenen. Then, in a surprise move, Kissin announced he would play a second encore of his own composition. This turned out to be a bouncy, sprightly, and surprisingly playful piece from a performer whose stage demeanor is measured and controlled. Here was a glimpse into a more intimate, more relaxed, Evgeny Kissin. Clearly, Evgeny Kissin is one of the world’s leading pianists, and now that I’ve finally heard him live I can’t wait to hear him again and again.