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Soaring and Singing

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/05/2009 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Excerpts from “Romeo and Juliet” (The Young Juliet – Mercutio – Montagues and Capulets), Opus 75 – Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Opus 84
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise–fantaisie in A-flat Major, Opus 61 – Three Mazurkas, Opus 30/4, 41/4, 59/1 – Etudes: Opus 10/1, 2, 3, 4, 12 & Opus 25/5, 6, 11

Evgeny Kissin (Piano)

E. Kissin (© Steve Sherman)

When Evgeny Kissin made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1990 at the age of 19, he was already a seasoned pianist, having conquered the (then) Soviet Union, East Europe and Great Britain. At that time, as his BMG disc shows, he played like a mature pianist and a great pianist. Yet something was wrong. He was hardly over-controlled in his Chopin and Prokofiev, but like a racing driver nearing a speed bump, he never gave his Steinway that extra push, that unexpected impetuosity which separates the great pianists from the iconic monuments to music.

Nobody could say that about Kissin last night with his return to Carnegie Hall, having his lived his life again, at the age of 38. No, he doesn’t have twice the speed or twice the technique: all of that was taken care of in his youth. What he does have is the architecture, the substance which transcends mere beauty. For now, this alchemist can take a precious stone and turn it into an inestimable jewel.

That same balance with which he began his career was the foundation of the program. The first half was Prokofiev, the second half was Chopin. (And the encores were equally divided.) The easy familiar Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet transcriptions were opposed by the Eighth Piano Sonata, a diabolical challenge for both performer and audience. And the balance was continued with echoes of the ballet in the second movement of the Sonata.

The Chopin hour included familiar etudes, and three mazurkas—themselves reflections of the fantastic mazurka of the Prokofiev’s second movement. But it began with another challenge, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, a work rarely played because it is so difficult to comprehend.

So now we come to Mr. Kissin and his performance of that opening work. Where a lesser soul might have taken the amorphous “fantasia” moments and played them as whims of the febrile mind of the composer. Mr. Kissin molded it as structurally sound architecture. The start was mysterious, almost ghostly, leading to a series of half-cadenzas, half improvisations. Yet when Mr. Kissin returned to those opening phrases, he played them with more volume, as if to say, “You’ll never understand it, but at least it’s familiar to you now.”

So what we had here was the mind of the composer through the thoughtful mind of the performer, more the ambiguity of a poem than the structure of a polonaise. The mystery of Chopin where we never wanted the solution.

The three mazurkas were played without much mazurka rhythm (like Prokofiev’s movement) except the C Sharp-Minor, which was big, broad, played with all the muscular enthusiasm needed.

Kissin had a good time with the Etudes, for these are mostly outward crowd-pleasers. The first was a fountain of fingers, the Opus 10, No 3 was the usual ravishing number, and the “Revolutionary” etude—daring for the pianist, since this was the Polish “anti-Russian” work—was played with revolutionary fervor.

Perversely, my favorite, for the wrong reasons, was the gymnastic Opus 10, No.2. Gymnastic in the right hand, with the left plunking out a little beat. And I love that left hand!! The right hand is the big blonde glorious Aryan Olympic runner, the left, a sweet little crippled kid trying so hard to keep up with his brother. My sympathies lie wholly with him.

The opening Prokofiev was just what you would want from Kissin. He whizzed through the ballet, taking all the orchestral parts (I assume it was the composer’s transcription), and continued onto the Eighth Sonata. The opening twisted and turned with as much mystery as the opening Chopin, the second movement was like a reverie. But with the demonic finale, Mr. Kissin’s fingers moved with such explosive speed—and perfection—each subordinate theme transparent under the explosions, that we in the audience needed an intermission for psychic refreshment.

The encores included a Suggestion Diabolique from the Russian, and a Chopin Nocturne which had the lyricism of a Bellini bel canto soprano. Mr. Kissin’s fingers have many guises, but above all, they sing as they soar.

Harry Rolnick



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