At 40, Kissin shows that virtuosity is still child’s play

Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 11:30 am

By Dennis Polkow

Evgeny Kissin played to a sold-out house Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Evgeny Kissin turned 40 last fall, a sobering reminder that even the most boyish-looking child prodigies get older. A younger Kissin might well have begun Sunday afternoon’s recital at Symphony Center with some of his signature pianistic pyrotechnics, but not this time.

Playing to a packed house that included onstage seating in the Vladimir Horowitz tradition, Kissin launched right into the familiar opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with such unexpected tranquility that it took the audience nearly half of the movement to settle down enough to achieve the silence necessary for such a discreet dynamic level.

Kissin played the arpeggios with such little variation it almost came off more like an abstract Bach prelude than the opening of an evocative middle period Beethoven sonata. The middle movement began lightly, almost playfully, but by the time Kissin reached the finale, his fire and characteristic take-no-prisoners virtuosity was thrown off with such freedom and erratic rubato that the contrast between the outer movements could not have been more extreme.

The Barber Piano Sonata has so long been associated with John Browning—whose definitive performance of the work inspired Barber to write his Piano Concerto for him— that it is easy to forget that the 1949 world premiere of the sonata was given by none other than Horowitz.

Kissin played the Barber Sonata as a tried-and-true knucklebuster with little of the restraint that Browning would give the piece, emphasizing its European influences. With Kissin, the opening was almost Bartokian in its jaggedness and Berg-like in the quieter passages with a Beethovenian passion throughout. The fugue began almost in Bach fashion, then taken dangerously fast, and eventually spilling over into an almost Rachmaninoff-like bravura, sans tonality.  The crowd ate it up and gave the performance a rock star’s ovation, which clearly pleased Kissin.

Chopin has been a composer associated with Kissin since his days as a prodigy, and his approach has remained remarkably similar over the years. He exhibits so much freedom and virtuosity in this music that it comes across more as a vehicle of self-expression as much of musical revelation.

The A Flat Major Nocturne had a perfunctory quality to it, a mere appetizer for an idiosyncratic performance of the Third Piano Sonata that was so eccentric with its sudden pauses and speeded-up climaxes that the music itself often seemed overwhelmed.

Encores for the immensely enthusiastic crowd included a contemplative Chopin Mazurka in a minor, a playful Beethoven Six Variations, Op. 76 and a rousing March from Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges.

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