Philharmonia / Kissin / Ashkenazy, Royal Festival Hall London

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The Independent Culture

Gala Fundraising concerts in public halls always have a somewhat unreal feeling. This was such a "concert with an additional purpose". A sizeable proportion of the audience had shelled out plenty to sit beside the usual punters at a gala given by the Philharmonia Orchestra in aid of the first centre for male cancer to be established by the Institute of Cancer Research.

Gala Fundraising concerts in public halls always have a somewhat unreal feeling. This was such a "concert with an additional purpose". A sizeable proportion of the audience had shelled out plenty to sit beside the usual punters at a gala given by the Philharmonia Orchestra in aid of the first centre for male cancer to be established by the Institute of Cancer Research.

The programme, of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, in no way pandered to the well-heeled, but the choice of soloist, Evgeny Kissin, clearly was bait. Although Kissin has recorded Beethoven's second and fifth concertos, his natural habitat is not normally the classical repertoire. But on the evidence of his performance of Beethoven's fourth concerto, this might be changing.

Kissin, while sensationally gifted technically, has too often appeared musically wayward, his great dexterity overwhelming the music's message. But, at the beginning of this concerto, where the soloist enters before the orchestra, any waywardness rested squarely with Beethoven. Kissin quite simply articulated the Beethoven's simple summoning of the orchestra in the "wrong" key - which is still a moment of frisson. The soloist has a long wait before coming in again. Kissin sat quietly and thoughtfully before his nicely poised octaves slunk into the foreground. Here was Kissin lingering seductively, beautifully shaping the phrase, and behaving like a seasoned classicist.

Only in some passage-work, which occasionally sounded like a rivet gun, or in the odd sforzato hit too hard, was the taming of this technical giant less than complete.

In the scales and arpeggios, Kissin allowed a delightful pattering. In the first movement's cadenza, where brilliance is expected, there was brilliance. In the slow movement, that dramatic exchange between soloist and orchestra, Kissin relished the molto cantabile and the molto espressivo, overwhelming the gruff orchestra with quiet, intense playing, underlining the sinister moments suggested by fortissimo trills and chromatic scales.

And, in the third movement, although not completely playful, Kissin glittered and sparkled. A couple of encores - a Mendelssohn scherzo and a Beethoven contradanse - demonstrated the lightness of his steely fingers. Perhaps music of the classical tradition will make Kissin a truly great artist, safely removing the temptation of playing pyrotechnics to the gallery.

Kissin seemed at ease, no doubt encouraged by the sensitive support of the Philharmonia and his fellow Russian pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazy, as conductor. The Beethoven was framed by Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave overture and Third Symphony. Both boast a Scottish link - Mendelssohn was deeply impressed by Scotland - but the musical link is, of course, Beethoven. How Beethoven-like both pieces sounded: Fingal's Cave as powerful a concert overture as many a Beethoven, while the brassy Philharmonia horns, chorusing at the end of Mendelssohn's symphony, could only recall the same thrilling sound (in the same key) of Beethoven's Seventh. The packed house got its money's worth. So too, let's hope, did the charity.

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