Kissin marks Rachmaninoff year, along with masterful Bach and Chopin

Mon Apr 17, 2023 at 4:39 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Evgeny Kissin performed music of Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff Sunday at Symphony Center. Photo: Johann Sebastian Hänel

2023 marks the 150th birthday anniversary of Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873). And while there are no titled festivals or immersive events on tap in Chicago, several of the Russian composer’s works are being performed locally this year by first-rank artists.

Especially this week. Daniil Trifonov plays Rachmaninoff’s mighty Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra beginning Thursday night. And on Sunday Evgeny Kissin devoted half of his Symphony Center recital to Rachmaninoff’s music.

But first, as they say in radio, there were three other favorite Kissin composers, and the Russian pianist opened the afternoon with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

The opening section can seem jarringly modern in its quasi-dissonance but Kissin kept the music within early 18th century parameters without shorting Bach’s originality. The toccata-like Fantasy was forthright yet elegant, with Kissin bringing stately poise to the middle section. His seamless slowing of tempo and graded dynamics lent anticipation to the first appearance of the fugue, imbued with a jaunty buoyancy. The pianist ramped up the speed and volume as the contrapuntal complexity increased without ever losing clarity of line. Kissin’s Bach ideally blended technical finish, bracing articulation and expressive poise.

Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 311, started off in engaging fashion with assertive energy and playfulness, Kissin wittily underlining the mock seriousness of the minor-key diversions. 

Yet the central Andante was curiously formal and detached on this occasion. The pianist kept emotion at arm’s length, and his staccato, somewhat unyielding touch missing the “con espressione” Mozart requested. 

The finale was back on track, taken at a simple yet breezy Allegro, which allowed Kissin to mine Mozart’s impish humor, not least the concerto-like cadenza interruption.

Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor is the most epic of the composer’s 23 works under that title and one of the freest structurally. In a letter to his publisher, Chopin referred to Op. 44 as “a kind of fantasy in polonaise form.”

Kissin’s Chopin is justly celebrated and he delivered the full power and scale this challenging music demands. He brought ominous mystery to the bass opening and daunting power to the malignly aggressive polonaise theme (no opulent ballroom gaiety here). The pianist deftly pointed the contrast of the central mazurka, building it into a lush Romantic outpouring. The dark harmonies of the transition into the reprise were aptly unsettling, and Kissin invested the polonaise’s return with even greater weight and ferocity, followed by the music’s dissolution and a final fortissimo blast.

The pianist avoided the usual repertorial suspects in his Rachmaninoff set after intermission. Kissin opened with Lilacs, which was given a rendering of lovely, limpid delicacy. (So pianistic is the composer’s keyboard transcription that it’s hard to believe this was originally a Rachmaninoff song.)

The Prelude in A minor, Op 32, no.8, provided immediate contrast, Kissin putting across the restless agitation with crackling virtuosity. The ensuing Prelude in G flat, Op. 23, no.10, was less successful, with his jabbing at notes undermining the relaxed lyricism.

The same qualities applied to the ensuing five selections from Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-tableaux, Op. 39. The bravura pages were dazzling and technically faultless, as with the turbulent brilliance of No. 1 in C minor and the off-center “Oriental” march of No. 9 in D major, which rose to a resounding coda.

While No. 2 in A minor proved structurally imposing in Kissin’s reading, the inward expression suffered from his fitfully overemphatic touch. Yet he charmingly put across the buoyant cheer of No. 4 in B minor and built No 5 in E flat minor—a piano concerto sans orchestra—into a lush and surging brand of Rachmaninoffian Romanticism. 

Few classical artists seem to enjoy basking in an audience’s affection as genuinely as Kissin, as he slowly walked out to acknowledge the loud cheers and extended ovations, smiling as he formally bowed to the packed house and those seated behind the stage.

Always generous with encores, Kissin offered three on Sunday, all Rachmaninoff from his Op. 3 set.

He began with the Melody in E Major, softly painting the gentle reverie and charting the lyrical ardor and quiet coda. The Serenade in B-flat Minor, offered another “Oriental” dance, thrown off with light panache.

Kissin’s final encore brought us full circle with the Prelude in C-sharp Minor. This doom-laden work was Rachmaninoff’s most popular music in his lifetime, and a piece he reportedly came to detest (though he never stopped playing it in recitals).

Kissin’s performance of this famous music gave us his finest Rachmaninoff interpretation of the afternoon. In a piece often thrown off with rhetoric and pounding, the pianist gave us an uncommonly fresh, thoughtful and intimate reading. Playing with hushed concentration and finely terraced dynamics, he organically built the music to a sonorous intensity at the return of the main theme before an uneasy, withdrawn coda. 

The overall effect was like removing centuries of grime from a familiar Renaissance painting to reveal bold colors and a myriad of detail one never knew existed.

Evgeny Kissin performs a duo-recital with Renée Fleming May 14 at Symphony Center.

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