Kissin shows taste and mastery in Schubert and Scriabin

Mon Mar 03, 2014 at 3:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Evgeny Kissin performed music of Chopin and Scriabin Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.
Evgeny Kissin performed music of Chopin and Scriabin Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Schubert’s final three piano sonatas have become favorites of musicians, their bleak existential angst seemingly irresistible for our postmodern age.

The problem is that the popularity of these works (D.958-960) has become so dominant that Schubert’s earlier sonatas have tended to get somewhat pushed into the background.

In his recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center, Evgeny Kissin performed a rescue mission of sorts, devoting the entire first half of his program to Schubert’s Sonata in D major, D.850.

Unlike so many of his works, the D major sonata received wide acclaim in Schubert’s short lifetime and was highly praised by Schumann as well. While there are passing shadows in this epic work, the predominant mood is sunny and optimistic with some of the composer’s most attractive keyboard themes.

In addition to his feted artistic qualities of technical polish and intelligence, Kissin is also a pianist of exquisite taste. His shaping of the long first movement was masterful, artfully paced and strongly projected yet maintaining an essential light touch.

The slow movement likewise went with a confiding intimacy that felt just right, the lyricism sensitive yet unsentimentalized. Kissin brought out the cheerful dancelike rhythms of the ensuing Scherzo with character and whirling right-hand octaves.

His off-center playfulness in the Rondo’s main theme gave it a quirky insouciant quality like a pompous toy soldier’s march. Kissin delineated the contrasts between the miniature mock-heroics and the sudden breakout bursts of silent-movie-chase bravura. His feather-like nuance in the lyrical episodes could have charmed the birds out of the Vienna woods, and the pianist’s easing down in the final pages was beautifully done, the coda suffused with a relaxed contentment.

The second half was made up entirely of music of the Russian pianist’s compatriot, Alexander Scriabin. The shadow of Chopin hovers in Scriabin’s concise Sonata No. 2, yet Kissin’s firmly defined playing drew a clear line, conveying the Russian composer’s own limpid expression as well as the fireworks of the more overtly virtuosic pages of the finale.

The young Scriabin idolized Chopin and the Polish composer’s presence is even more manifest in Scriabin’s early Twelve Etudes, Op. 8. Kissin offered seven of the etudes on Sunday.

The palpable influences are not only Chopin, but his admired Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and even Schumann. Yet Kissin brought an array of delicacy and acutely colored hues to these perfumed miniatures. No. 4 in B major was floated with a beguiling lyricism and Kissin was ever-sensitive to the shifting moods, bringing out the surging, impassioned music as well as the hushed introspection.

The enthusiastic ovations–including from the substantial overflow stage seating— brought Kissin back for three encores. He brought a simple eloquence to the Siciliana from Bach’s Flute Sonata in E major, BWV 1031, as transcribed by Wilhelm Kempff. A later Scriabin Etude, No. 5 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 42, was played with apt dark bravura.

With Chopin’s birthday just the previous day, it was suitable for one of the composer’s foremost exponents to finish with his music. The familiar Polonaise in A flat was given a fresh and exhilarating rendition, Kissin transforming the music into a mini-tone poem with each episode richly characterized.

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