Kissin charts the Romantic era’s dawn and twilight with equal mastery
Pianist Evgeny Kissin is known for his vibrant and technically flawless interpretations of the Romantic literature, particularly Liszt, but Monday night at Carnegie Hall he offered a slightly different angle. Kissin began with a late Schubert sonata to mark the beginning of Romanticism, and then circled around for the second half of the recital with early Scriabin to mark the period’s ebb. Remarkably, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, both styles on the two halves of the program were equally stunning and perfectly suited to the pianist’s ever-widening intellectual grasp.
Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D Major, D. 850, like all his sonatas, is a sprawling work with abounding repetitions. Kissin not only imbued every individual note with purpose, but also somehow threaded the entire piece – all four movements of nearly 40 minutes – from the very first breath to the very last. The performance never lagged or tired, and always kept one wondering where each minute color or phrase was going to go next. His playing never became too strident, nor too romantic or laden with rubato. Even in the eighth-note chordal motive of the first movement that returns again and again, Kissin managed to grow in intensity and purpose every time around without ever becoming overwhelming.
An ambiguous ending in historical and theoretical terms, the sonata closes slowly and simply. But it was wholly unambiguous with Kissin at the reigns. The mountain of notes suddenly crystallized as Kissin entered another soundscape all together. Every musical gesture had pointed to this simple finish all along, and Kissin had brought the audience to exactly that point with him.
One of Kissin’s most remarkable abilities is to change colors in an instant, and seamlessly. Scriabin was nothing if not a sculptor of colors and sounds, and Kissin’s ear made the richness of his works shine for all their subtleties. Alexander Scriabin’s early Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19 is a tightly constructed Romantic work that begins with Impressionistic gestures, for which Kissin’s exceptionally even touch and delicacy came forefront, and flies into an ecstatic frenzy in the second movement.
In the closing set of Scriabin etudes, the rippling sixteenth notes of Etude No. 2 in F-sharp Minor were brought to a finish by a barely audible bass line that moved back and forth from the tonic to the dominant with such melodism and intention as to be uniquely beautiful.
Kissin has a knack for making you listen to the small details without calling unnecessary attention to them. The impossibly quick octaves of Etude No. 9 in G-sharp minor were effortless. Suddenly, one wondered how he could have possibly gone from a bombastic lower register to a dainty whisper in the upper register within a second of hurried octaves – so flawless was the transition.
Kissin ended with an old standby, a Horowitz favorite, Etude No. 12 in D-sharp Minor, with it’s leaping left hand and quick octaves in the right hand that never let down. It was breathless, with incredible depth and breadth of sound. It seems the audience would have stayed all night, but Kissin finished after a mere three encores of Bach, Scriabin, and Chopin, that left the audience on their feet and yelling for more.