Classical: Phenomenonal power and imagination

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The Independent Culture


KISSIN FEVER hit town on Monday night, though a few are immune. "He can't last another year," they say (and have been saying for some time), or "He's losing touch with his audience." Well, he certainly packs them in and a few mumblings are always heard in response to a phenomenon.

Still, it's a pity that because of his appeal, Kissin had to play at the Royal Festival Hall rather than the Queen Elizabeth, which is much better, kinder, for piano sound. Some say Kissin is a basher - he's a forceful player - but he was battling not only against a dry acoustic, but also what seemed to be a particularly brittle-toned piano.

On balance, I'd say Kissin won. This was a Russian programme, beginning with the complete second set of Rachmaninov's Etudes tableaux, Op 39. Compared with his earlier Preludes, they're somewhat chilly pieces, very much about glittering figuration rather than deep or distinctive poetic content, even though Rachmaninov said he had pictures in his mind when composing. Kissin emphasised their brilliance, sometimes their savagery, with stabbing percussive attacks in the first piece and an element of hysteria in the second, evoking memories of Horowitz. Yet here, too, he differentiated the closing chords with the subtlest variations of colour.

In the fifth piece we got some typically stylish de-synchronisation of the two hands, if not the most alluring tone quality possible, but after the gruff opening of the seventh, there was lovely liquid-quiet playing. The ninth was a model of controlled pianissimo staccato.

For all his megalomania, Scriabin was not only a more visionary composer than Rachmaninov, but also capable of warmer feeling. In a sense, he was a less mechanical composer.

In his Third Sonata (not yet the visionary Scriabin, it must be admitted), Kissin underplayed the warmth, and gave the dramatic first movement a biting edge, with clipped rhythms and angry attacks. The second movement was smouldering, febrile, and where we might have expected relaxed tenderness in the third movement we got a sort of glacial, artificial languor, again with one of Kissin's trademarks, a reluctant left hand. For my taste it seemed a bit dragged, though Russians traditionally treat andante as largo. In the finale, gusty contrasts of volume almost broke a sense of continuous line.

Not that Kissin is weak in a melodic sense, as he demonstrated in his perfectly poised playing of Rachmaninov's "Vocalise" in Alan Richardson's arrangement of the original song: here he lingered just enough to stress the tenderness of one of Rachmaninov's most seductive tunes.

Finally, a display of athleticism, the mere thought of which makes one sweat. Apparently, Balakirev's Islamey was too hard even for its pianistically brilliant composer to manage himself. Most pianists pull its whirling rhythms about a good deal, letting out the seams of the composition, very often to the extent of pulling it apart. None of that here. Rarely can it have been played so strictly in time as well with such sharp accuracy. The audience fairly roared, and stopping to take a modest bunch of flowers, our pale-faced prodigy smiled for the first time.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper