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Evgeny Kissin, Barbican, London


Evgeny Kissin likes to disconcert people, and at this Barbican recital he nipped onstage and started to play before the audience had registered he’d even arrived.

We were afloat on the smooth waters of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata, courtesy of a dry, restrained, unusually even sound. This piece often tempts players to take liberties with tempo, but Kissin let the music wander where it would, at one point almost reaching a dreamy stasis: this was the most understated account I have heard in years, but also paradoxically one of the most dramatic. The Allegretto had a relaxed cantabile, and the Presto had both steely strength and massive force, its articulation crystal-clear.

This extraordinary Russian pianist has passed through a long series of stations, from the infant prodigy, to the stalker-besieged young superstar, to the embattled thirtysomething whose determination to impose his will on every piece he touched resulted in some uncomfortably forced recordings. Now 41, he’s emerged onto a plateau where he serenely inhabits the works he plays, his style securely grounded in the grand classical tradition. His previous two Barbican recitals – of Beethoven and Liszt – had both technical perfection and impeccable taste, and this was shaping up the same way.

By following the Beethoven with Samuel Barber’s explosive Piano Sonata Opus 16 he played a wild card, and this too paid off handsomely. Ferociously virtuosic, and springing constant surprises in its strenuous denial of tonality, this is not great music, but such is Kissin’s artistry that he almost made it seem so. Vladimir Horowitz had premiered this work – which Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers had commissioned – and what we got here, with limpid textures, was a performance by the Horowitz de nos jours.

Winding up with his beloved Chopin, Kissin delivered the A flat major Nocturne with artless perfection before launching into a definitive account of the Sonata No 3 in B minor. His tone had a lovely bloom in the opening Allegro, he let the Largo breathe naturally, and he gave the Finale a heroic cast. Then came three encores, an exquisite Mazurka, Beethoven’s comically pompous ‘Rage over a Lost Penny’, and a Prokofiev march. And how the audience loved him: their response to this supreme showman made Lang Lang’s ovations look like the carefully-calculated things they are.