Last night, Evgeny Kissin, the Russian-born pianist, began his recital with Chopin. I thought back to the 1980s—1984, specifically. Kissin was twelve, a curly-headed boy in a red Young Pioneers scarf. He played the two Chopin concertos, and that was when most of the world first heard him.
On that occasion, he was in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Last night, he was in another great hall, Carnegie.
He began with three nocturnes, two of them familiar, one of them much less so. I am speaking of the Nocturne in G major, Op. 37, No. 2. Why pianists don’t program this piece more often, I don’t know. It is a beauty, and highly intelligent. Also, the piece is a two-fer: both a nocturne (as it is designated formally) and a barcarolle.
Kissin played all three nocturnes commendably, of course. He has a sure sense of rhythm. He followed the structures of the pieces. His dynamics were true. Right notes, you can pretty much take for granted.
This Grande Sonate is very difficult, and sprawling. It can be unwieldy, in ordinary hands. Kissin played it with extraordinary neatness.
I would have asked for more cantabile—more of a singing line. Sometimes, a melody came out a bit thuddingly. I could practically see the hammers go up and down.
Next on the program was Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14, a “Grande Sonate.” This is a throwback of a piece—a throwback to a golden age of piano playing. Kissin is a throwback himself.
He played this music with incredible virility. He was also capricious, when called on to be so. When he played the second movement, the Scherzo, I thought of the phrase “titanic impishness.” (By the way, there is a hint of Schumann’s great song “Widmung” in this movement.) The finale is marked Prestissimo possibile—as fast as possible. That proved very fast indeed. What’s more, Kissin injected it with charisma.
This Grande Sonate is very difficult, and sprawling. It can be unwieldy, in ordinary hands. Kissin played it with extraordinary neatness. He managed the piece like an expert tamer a lion. Honestly, the piece was almost as neat as a Haydn sonata.
The real treat of the evening came after intermission, when Kissin played Debussy preludes—eight of the better-known ones. He is not known for this repertoire. Then again, he is a complete pianist, as he demonstrated.
Debussy requires . . . what? Sensitivity, humor, timing (which is related to humor), coloring, keen pedaling, and more. Evgeny Kissin had all the tools. I will comment on some specific preludes.
Debussy requires . . . what? Sensitivity, humor, timing (which is related to humor), coloring, keen pedaling, and more. Evgeny Kissin had all the tools.
“Les collines d’Anacapri” swung, bluesily. It was totally alive. “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” was amazingly, and rightly, virtuosic. It was not handled with sugar tongs. “La fille aux cheveux de lin” was lovely (as she was born to be). “La cathédrale engloutie” was not so much a prelude as a tone poem—a veritable tone poem. “Feux d’artifice” had uncommon limpidity.
Ladies and gentlemen, this was great piano playing.
The printed program ended with a Scriabin sonata, No. 4, a brilliant, strange, and beautiful work. I had been looking forward to it for days. Kissin was just fine in it. Yet the music can be more beguiling and exciting, and so can Kissin. The Debussy was the peak of the recital.
Kissin has been known to reel off a string of encores—five, six, or more. Last night, he played but three. The first two were children’s pieces, in a sense: “Träumerei,” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, and “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. “Träumerei” was Horowitz’s go-to first encore, as you remember. From Children’s Corner, he liked to play “Serenade for the Doll.” Kissin said goodnight with a burst of Chopin: the Grande valse brillante in A flat.
A very satisfying evening this was.