Evgeni Kissin Comes Back to Carnegie Hall
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/20/2018 - & July 17 (Paris), 22 (La Roque-d’Anthéron), 26 (Verbier), August 4 (Salzburg), October 25 (Madrid), 31 (Lisboa), November 10 (Monte-Carlo), 14 (Paris), 23 (Luzern), 26 (Genève), 2017, March 11 (München), 15 (Wien), 24 (Freiburg), 29 (London), May 13 (Chicago), 16 (Washington), 25 (Toronto), June 17 (Amsterdam), 21 (Luxembourg), October 9 (Vancouver), 14 (San Francisco), 20 (Taipei), 24 (Hong Kong), 28 (Seoul), November 2 (Yokohama), 6 (Tokyo), 10 (Osaka), 14 (Tokyo), 2018
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 29 in B Flat Major, op. 106, “Hammerklavier”
Sergei Rachmaninov: Preludes, op. 23 No. 1-7, and op. 32 No. 10, 12 & 13
Evgeni Kissin (piano)
E. Kissin (© Fadi Kheir)
After a nearly two year hiatus, Evgeni Kissin came back to Carnegie Hall twice this spring, first to perform chamber music with the Emerson String Quartet, then for a solo recital. Anytime Mr. Kissin appears in New York, he is greeted as a hero and nowadays he is one of the very few musicians who not only fills the hall but has audience occupying stage seats. Needless to say there’s a reason for that, as Mr. Kissin remains one of the supreme masters of the keyboard and more and more often a master musician, as he proved during this recital.
In recent years Mr. Kissin has moved toward performing late Beethoven – his version of the Sonata in C minor, op. 111 lingers in memory – and this time he chose the mightiest one of all, the “Hammerklavier”. For those who are not sure as to why this sonata is named for the piano: when Beethoven set out to create this sonata, his impetus was a recently acquired instrument with an extended range from the English manufacturer Broadwood and, as frequent in his case, with every development in piano construction came a new development in his compositional style. But even as early as 1814, perhaps as a result of patriotic sentiments, he decided to use German terminology not only for the pianoforte but also, as in later sonatas and string quartets, quite frequently substituted Italian tempo markings and other performing indications with German ones. Thus the same Hammerklavier term is used in the case of earlier sonatas for piano (op. 101) and piano and cello (op. 102). There are other similarities between op. 106 and those earlier works, to be mentioned.
When it comes to the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, listeners frequently associate the work with a sense of struggle, which generally accompanies performances of that fiendishly difficult and cumbersome work. There was nothing of that sort on Sunday afternoon when Mr. Kissin sat at the piano and delivered about the most perfect version of op. 106 that this reviewer has ever encountered. He once again proved that he remains one of the giants of the keyboard and, as I like to say, he doesn’t believe in playing wrong notes. That sense of struggle was even implied by the composer himself who commented that this sonata will “keep performers busy and challenged for the next fifty years”. In Mr. Kissin’s assured playing, needless to say, there was not much effort or challenge displayed. For pianists and connoisseurs, there are some performance aspects that have special significance and such a moment comes with the opening of the sonata. This chordal “fanfare”, a bass octave followed by several chords, already elicits controversy: some purists insist that the treacherous jump must absolutely be executed with one hand, whereas many others are satisfied with merely getting the notes in tempo: it is almost impossible to achieve the required speed of those opening notes when using only the left hand.
This moment is, for some, one of the Holy Grails in piano literature, and those same purists are willing to dismiss the rest of the performance if “The Jump” is not performed “as written” or, more likely, as they see it fit. Allow me to quote from one of the most admired contemporary musicians, Sir András Schiff, who declares that the jump “must for goodness sake be played by the left hand, as Beethoven notates it, and so too must the following bass chord. Anything that makes this beginning technically easier will fail to do justice to its overwhelming expressive strength”. Strong and menacing words, one has to admit. Mr. Kissin obviously took this admonition to heart and, as the purists dictate, played “the jump” solely with the left hand, and nailed it each and every time, a feat that I have never heard before. But, as much as proving that he is a super-virtuoso, even more importantly he proved to be a thoughtful, insightful and perceptive musician. As far as following Beethoven’s metronome marking, he didn’t fall into the trap of playing the first movement too fast, settling instead for a brisk but comfortable pace which allowed the highlighting of many interesting textures and voices, also in the left hand. The Scherzo, one of Beethoven’s shortest and almost cheeky, was perhaps slightly earthbound, a little sober, though it is only my own aesthetics that allow for any criticism. It is an amazing movement, interrupted by a rush of a prestissimo scale; prior we have, in the central section, an echo of the “Eroica” Symphony’s opening motif. What sounds like an odd effect in the “Hammerklavier” Sonata would, in just a few years, become a quite common occurrence in the late quartets.
In the deeply serious, maybe even tragic Adagio sostenuto movement, Beethoven comes closest to operatic passion and Chopinesque ornamentations. One could argue that if one would take several segments out of this movement, an unsuspecting listener could indeed guess Chopin as the composer. Here, Mr. Kissin opted for a spacious treatment, but luckily avoided a loss of pulse, which can occur with a slow tempo. It was richly expressive, with each note of the figurations being sung in a manner of melody, rather than simply fast ornamentation. Equally impressive was the finger-twisting fugue that crowns this mighty music edifice. In his late period, Beethoven started to concentrate on the contrapuntal treatment of music and in three of the sonatas from that period includes fugal or fugato sections in their last movements: it happens in the Sonata in A Major op. 101, the Piano and Cello Sonata in D Major op. 102 No. 2 and lastly in op. 106. But the monumental fugue in op. 106 is much longer and much more complicated, with a slew of thematic manipulation, augmentation and diminution that, in their complexity, leave Baroque models in the dust. But just as in the aforementioned cello sonata, op. 106 has its own otherworldly moment where a D major episode appears as a ray of sunshine.
One had an impression that whereas Murray Perahia, who performed that very sonata in the now anointed David Geffen Hall two seasons ago, palpably displayed signs of exhaustion by the end, Mr. Kissin dispatched it with efficiency and an already mentioned mastery and magisterial approach. His tempo for the fugue was a shade slower than the “original marking”, but still quite brisk and impressively maintained throughout. And whereas Mr. Perahia, with that work, finished the concert (with no encores), Mr. Kissin proceeded to play another 43 minutes of Rachmaninov Preludes and his customary assortment of encores (Yuja Wang, in her Carnegie Recital six days subsequent to Mr. Perahia, also seemed full of post op. 106 energy).
Mr. Kissin chose the first seven preludes from the op. 23 and three of the last four from op. 32. In the case of the op. 23 set, the mood is alternated by the composer frequently - stormy and virtuosic ones interchange with more reflective and lyrical. A general mood of the Rachmaninov set was established immediately with the first two: it was evident that the slower preludes were perhaps too lovingly lingered over, where each and every phrase robbed the music of its necessary momentum.
For instance, I have never heard No. 4 in D major played so deliberately and can’t say that I was entirely convinced. But it was vintage Kissin: beautifully executed and deeply felt and brooding to a degree that is generally the provenance of a gloomy Russian soul. What saved the “cycle” was the juxtaposition of the virtuoso and pensive, and the stormy preludes such as the G minor op. 23 No. 5 or the B-flat op. 23 No. 2 were stunning, especially in their respective middle sections with the weaving of those gorgeous, soul-pinching melodies. As for the music itself, the last of the ten preludes we heard, the D flat Major from op. 32, has proportionally the longest coda of any work of music of which I am familiar. By comparison, the proverbially “unending” coda of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 sounds positively epigrammatic. It seemed that composer just didn’t want to part with that piece and piled up more and more chords in a manner that I’d expect from someone who is parodying grandiloquent Romantic gestures. But elsewhere there were numerous moments of the old Russian school of playing that, in works of Rachmaninov, Mr. Kissin exemplifies.
With the last thunderous sounds of Rachmaninov, the audience, as always, demanded more. Prior to Mr. Kissin’s recital, another favourite of New York audiences, pianist Yuja Wang, performed on the stage of Carnegie Hall just three days earlier and there could be a no more dramatic difference between those two than in their approach to encores. Ms. Wang played seven encores and dispatched those in record time, not allowing her fans to wait too long for each of them. She had fun, she enjoyed herself, she played and smiled and concluded her additional mini-recital expeditiously. To many New York fans, Mr. Kissin is still remembered as the pianist who after his 2007 recital played an unprecedented twelve encores! But there’s a certain ritual in awaiting Mr. Kissin’s returns to the piano and customarily the wait time and playing time are about equal (The aforementioned 2007 recital’s encore set added 90 minutes to the program, ending at 11:45). He obviously likes to bask in glory, and who can blame him? This time he offered four Russian encores: the Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor op. 2 No. 1, the well-known Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor op. 3 No. 2 and the Tchaikovsky Meditation op. 72 No. 5. Out of the ordinary was Kissin’s own attractive Toccata, with some jazzy elements and quotes from Broadway tunes.
This listener will most likely remember Mr. Kissin’s recital more for his magisterial and technically magnificent reading of the Beethoven sonata than his deeply personal Rachmaninov. Still, the key word for the whole recital is “magnificent”.