Having a ball with Schumann

Evgeny Kissin | Manchester's Bridgewater Hall

There's no mistaking Evgeny Kissin's seriousness of purpose. The way he makes his way to and from the piano, the unsmiling manner in which he bows to the audience on all sides, and his general demeanour with its pronounced gravitas, leave no doubt that this is not a recital for the half-hearted. For Kissin makes no concessions. And on the evidence of the large, hushed audience hanging on his every note in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, he has no need to either. The seriousness that also colours his playing reaches out to the listener too.

In the opening work, Beethoven's D minor Sonata, Op.31 No.2, as experimental a piece as any, and outstanding in its own way, Kissin brought out the novel effect of the movement's integrated passages of largo and allegro. The slight air of detachment that he wears so lightly seemed entirely appropriate in the adagio where no lack of rhythmic continuity, not even for one second, threatened its smooth delivery. It was as though we were hearing the music not just played but composed at the keyboard, before our eyes and ears.

Nowhere, surely, does Brahms's idiosyncratic piano writing throw up more of a challenge than in his Third Sonata in F minor, Op.5. Given Kissin's immaculately weighted and measured pianism, however, even the difficult, slightly clumsy passages in the first and last of the five movements became convincing, persuading the listener to share his vision of the sonata's romantic character and warmth of feeling, regardless of its often wayward shape.

It's not easy to create an appropriately fanciful atmosphere within which Schumann's Carnaval can be fully realised and appreciated. Without any exaggerated definition of the characters who people this music - the carnival characters of Pierrot and Columbine, composers including Chopin and Paganini, and some of Schumann's own close friends - Kissin gave a vivid account of the masked ball at which they appear, whirling dizzily in the dance episodes. The technically daunting rapid thumb repetitions, the finger staccato, the skipping left hand, all tripped off Kissin's hands.

And the inexhaustible imagination and inventiveness that Schumann poured into the variations that make up Carnaval - from the emphatic opening "Préambule" to the passionate "Chiarina" (Schumann's beloved Clara) to the final menacing musical clash between the composer's friends and those who opposed them - proved the perfect vehicle for Kissin's intelligent and sensitive aristry.

Future UK recital dates: National Concert Hall, Dublin, 26 Mar Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 28 Mar Royal Festival Hall, London, 31 May; with Vladimir Ashkenhazy and Philharmonia: Birmingham 14 Apri London 15 April