Evgeny Kissin, Barbican

Michael Church
Thursday 17 February 2011 12:52

Last year everybody who was anybody in virtuoso pianism gave us their take on Chopin.

This being Liszt’s anniversary, the same is now happening to him. We’ve already had memorable recitals, including one by Britain’s leading Lisztean Leslie Howard, who boldly went off the beaten track to bring back three Liszt pieces that had never before been performed.

Since Evgeny Kissin has not hitherto made a specialism of Liszt, his recital was bound to be revelatory, but the first piece didn’t reveal much. The “transcendental” study entitled Ricordanza came with a slow, ruminative burn, its gravely nostalgic melody delivered with immaculate precision. But this was just the warm-up for the great Sonata in B minor, a warhorse all virtuosos now feel duty-bound to ride. Kissin’s way was impressive: in his hands, this complex work cohered in a way one rarely hears; its jagged depths and oases of otherworldly calm were delineated with lucid control. But Kissin had somehow tamed it: one missed the requisite fantasy and fear, the desperate struggle. He thumped the living daylights out of his instrument, but the sound still didn’t seem big enough, didn’t resonate as it should. It needed more air.

After the interval his art took wing. Funérailles, which Liszt wrote to commemorate friends executed after the 1848-49 Hungarian uprising, began with climbing fury over a tolling bass, and climaxed in the noblest of storms. Vallee D’Obermann came clothed in majesty, and the strange trio of pieces known as Venezia e Napoli wound up with a remarkable account of its Tarantella. A tarantella should by definition be wild, but this managed to be at the outer edge of wildness and at the same time kept under miraculously silky control. If anyone still needed proof, this was a reminder that, when Kissin is at his best, there is no one to touch him. Communal ecstasy: a standing ovation: as Kissin stood there with his dreamy half-smile, a young Russian in white tux dashed out of the stalls to press a huge bouquet of roses on him. First encore: Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s “Widmung”, done with delicate empathy. Second encore: Liszt’s version of Schubert’s Nights in Vienna, beginning with relaxed charm and ending in filigree fireworks.

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