Monday, 14 February 2011

Evgeny Kissin: Liszt, 13 February 2011

Barbican Hall

Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139, no.9: ‘Ricordanza’
Sonata in B minor, S.178
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173: ‘Funérailles’
Années de pèlerinage: Book I, ‘Suisse’, S.160, ‘Vallée d’Obermann’; ‘Venezia e Napoli,’ S.162 (supplement to Book II, ‘Italie’)

What a strange pianist Evgeny Kissin is! Not that his legion of fans seemed to notice, or indeed to care: if this was not quite Lang Lang hysteria, then it contrasted starkly with the reception granted, say, Maurizio Pollini in his recent Bach recital, which musically stood on an altogether more exalted level. Kissin has little in common, I hasten to add, with the meretricious Lang: a crude circus act, Liberace without the jokes – or the style. Yet, given that Kissin will reach forty later this year, the shortcomings – and like everything else he does, they are remarkably consistent – ought to concern all but the least discerning listener; they can no longer be explained away as something that greater experience will necessarily impart to an indubitably gifted prodigy.

First, let it be said that Kissin certainly has the technique for Liszt. Pretty much every bar of his recital proclaimed that, contrasting with the plodding offerings of completist Leslie Howard’s recital last month. The opening Ricordanza, Liszt’s ninth Transcendental Study, displayed Kissin’s technique off to excellent advantage. Not only could he execute Liszt’s increasingly extravagant, though never empty, roulades with a glorious range of colour, the clarity with which he did so was quite extraordinary. He can certainly turn a melody too. Yet ultimately, there was aloofness too, or that was how it seemed at first: as time went on, one realised that what was lacking was any sense of feeling what the composer was saying. What did it all mean? I was still asking that question by the time of the first encore, the Schumann-Liszt Widmung.

The B minor Sonata would prove a greater test, of course, and here, once again despite the technique, one could only ask what was at stake, for nothing much seemed to be. This was no Faustian and/or Christian struggle for life and death. We could argue until the next Liszt centenary about the presence or not of a programme to Liszt’s crowning masterpiece for piano, but there was not the slightest sense that such issues had occurred to Kissin. Where were the metaphysics? His virtuosity was properly transcendental, but for Liszt, this is but a starting point, a means of beating mere virtuosi at their own game in order to achieve musical ends. Much of Kissin’s rendition was mercilessly hard driven. Even the exposition’s second group opened in unyielding fashion; it melted later, but one never sensed that this was felt, that it happened for any reason other than because this was how he played it. Some of the big chords merely sounded brutal. A rare finger-slip in the fugato served mainly to demonstrate the excellent technique elsewhere, but this was a glittering display rather than a human statement that wrestled with the divine. Needless to say, the notorious recapitulation double octaves held no fears for the pianist, but is it not preferable that, in some sense at least, they should? Ultimately, Liszt’s great formal and dramatic achievement sounded like a giant transcendental study, or better a series of studies.

Funérailles was more suited, despite its undeniable emotional content, to Kissin’s approach. For one thing, the sheer volume he elicited from the instrument would have put most pianists to shame. Though he remained detached, the sense of an elegy observed was not entirely inappropriate for Liszt. Yet even here, and more so in the following Vallée d’Obermann, every aspect of the performance, not least Kissin’s rubato, seemed so calculated that there was an impression of a pianist imprisoned. Technique staggered, but is wonder observed (or dictated?) wonder at all?

The three pieces of Venezia e Napoli summed up the problem. In Gondolieri, rhythm was perfectly judged, which sadly meant that it did not quite work, for it should sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘judged’. We are dealing with a gondola rather than an oligarch’s yacht. Liszt’s fioritura was despatched with extraordinary control and clarity, but what did it mean? The Canzone sounded darkly passionate, but whose passion was it? Finally, the Tarantella’s opening suited Kissin to a tee: the way he despatched Liszt’s challenges was straightforwardly stunning. The central section, however, sounded – reader, you will have guessed it – observed rather than experienced, and the final material, in which characteristics of both earlier sections need to be combined, reproduced the first virtue and the second void. In a concerto, a conductor can fill in some of the gaps; in a recital, or at least in this recital, the listener who is not a hollering fan remains acutely aware of what is missing.


Wansu said...

Thank you for the interesting post.

I had high expectations on this recital because the program didn't look like a usual "Liszt showpieces package" that I anticipated before the program was announced. Certainly it turned out to be a very enjoyable concert (in the sense that I enjoyed Kissin's marvelous virtuosity, especially well-displayed at Tarantella's opening and conclusion as you said) but ironically what I enjoyed the most was his technique. I enjoyed the recital a lot, but wasn't profoundly moved either somehow...

I also found his stage manners quite strange (especially, that gaze at the audience - I don't know if I'm being too nitpicky here), which could be another stark contrast with Maurizio Pollini. The choice of encores, as well...

Anyway I'm looking forward to Maurizio Pollini's upcoming recital all the more (and the rest of Pollini Project). Thank you for the posting.

Tatiana Kantorovitch said...

Dear Mark,
you must have been far away from the Barbican that night tuned to another wave or just doing your job logically combining words together into dry and meaningful sentences and missing all the point! Your brain exercise has nothing to do with the magic we are experienced sitting with you in the same Hall. We have been on an exciting journey of depth and originality, you must have left on the platform missing the train. I feel sorry for you! You wasted your precious time for nothing. Just words. Never do it again, go and listen to Leslie Howard instead.
Tatiana Kantorovitch, piano teacher

Luis said...

does anyone know what did he played for his second encore?

I totally second Tatiana. Kissin is quickly becoming one of my musical heros. His technique, his sound and musicality makes him an exceptional interpreter. I totally enjoy his recital. Rather unusual pieces, but amazing execution.

Mark Berry said...

Sorry Luis, I omitted to mention that: wasn't it the Soirées de Vienne?

Anonymous said...

I have always wondered about Kissin, and have often felt him to be somewhat "robotic" in his delivery. There is no doubting his flawless technique, but there is a coolness and a detachment in his playing. Maybe it is time for a shift of direction for him as he reaches 40? Perhaps more conducting/working with ensembles, in the manner of Ashknenazy? As a pianist, one spends far too much time alone: interaction with other musicians - indeed with other people! - can be very instructive

EC said...

Wish I could have been there. Very envious at just how many concerts you manage to go to! I find that Kissin is a fascinating pianist.. he has all the technique in the world, but also something else. For example, I would not box him the same category as a Lang Lang (at Lang's current playing anyway). On the nights where everything "clicks", Kissin can play with incredible poetry.. just listen to some of his Carnegie Hall recitals on RCA. I wonder whether a lot of this mystery comes from his background, having a single teach, from a very distinct school of playing (something we seem to be losing today). My inkling still is that there's something there in Kissin.. He might be at 40 years, but judging by the other greats today, I hope he has at least a few decades left of playing.

EC said...

Apologies, my earlier comment was rather incoherent. It was a busy day at work, especially since I had to escape by 7 for Pollini's recital!

The message I was attempting to get across was that, in my opinion, there is real brilliance in Kissin. I can't comment on Sunday's recital, regretfully not having been there, but I would personally consider him among the top level of solo pianists performing today (judging from other recent concerts and recordings).

That said, Pollini's Beethoven tonight was on a level I have seldom heard reached. This was certainly one of the most memorable recitals I have ever had the privilege of attending. Pollini seemed like he was playing for his life; such excitement and extraordinary detail in works I already know so well. It must also be mentioned that his instrument sounded phenomenal; he was clearly at complete ease with it, the balance simply perfect with an incredible singing quality. My only wish (apart for banishment to the coughing few) was that I could hear the whole programme again. Such an immense achievement, played and never to be repeated in the exact form we heard this evening; there's something saddening, yet completely wonderful about that. No question, this was one of the great recitals.

PhilipMC said...

Dear Luis, and Mark Berry

To be a bit more precise than Mark about the second encore, it was No. 6 from "Soirées de Vienne, 9 Valses caprices d'après Schubert" S227. The themes Liszt uses are from Schubert's Valses Nobles D969 and Valses Sentimentales D779. The piece was a favourite encore of Horowitz, apparently, and he played it at his last ever public recital, in Hamburg in 1987.

The first encore was of course Liszt's transcription/arrangement, S566, of Widmung ("Dedication"), the glorious love song that opens Schumann's song sequence Myrthen, Op 25.

PhilipMC said...

I cannot agree with EC's comments about Pollini's Beethoven recital last night: " of the great recitals" ? Surely not. On the other hand crosseyedpianist's blog (click on his name in his post above to get the link)seems to me to be absolutely spot on: I agree with practically every word, including his views of the wonderful Op.110 work itself, my favourite of all the 32 sonatas. Piers Lane's recent Wigmore Hall performance of it to which crosseyedpianist refers was, despite its faults (in particular a very sluggish scherzo), overall much more satisfying than Pollini's account, especially in the first movement and the reprise of the fugue (in inversion) with the accelerando coda of the final movement, both of which were perfunctorily expressed in Pollini's hands.

PhilipMC said...

Sincere apologies, which I hope she will accept, to crosseyedpianist whom I now realise is a lady, for making totally unfounded gender assumptions in my previous post.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I had the same impression in Chicago last week ( Kissin jumped into the final Canzone of Venezia e Napoli as if he couldn't wait to get back on shore and show off some rapid tremolos. Of course, it didn't stop a tumultuous standing ovation. I agree that Pollini is in a different musical league, but when I heard him do the last three Schubert sonatas in the 1970s, he gave rather mechanical performances and seemed completely unable to empathize with Schubert's humanity. I think he has mellowed a lot in the intervening period, but he's performing the Beethoven programme in Chicago later this year so I won't be able to make a direct comparison.