No pianist today arouses stronger feelings than Evgeny Kissin. The sharp reactions of some critics against his playing are a measure of his popularity. He is, after all, the only pianist to have been given a Royal Albert Hall Prom all to himself. A former child prodigy who seems to have sprung to artistic maturity without a crisis, Kissin never needed to win a competition to launch an international career. If there's a moderate critical response to this phenomenon, it's a degree of doubt about how much heart there is in his playing. But there can be no doubt about his technique. Some people say he bangs. He doesn't, though he does always play at high pressure, and if he sometimes seems calculating or over-rehearsed, he is never less than totally committed at the point of delivery.
On Wednesday he began with Busoni's arrangement of Bach's great Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, in which steely fingers and thunderous chords could not disguise the fact that what seems effortless on the organ sounds effortful on the piano, and the other way round in the case of the long pedal solo just after the opening flourishes, which Busoni tamely translated for the hands an octave apart. Kissin took the Adagio at a lugubrious tempo, encouraged to do so, perhaps, by Busoni's sludgy left-hand texture. But the Fugue, with the final note of its subject subtly quieter than the rest, was full of character and brilliantly precise.
Recently, Schumann's F sharp minor Sonata seems to have become more popular than the one in G minor, even though that's a finer and much more gratifying work to play. Kissin certainly has the fingers and the fire for the F sharp minor and his proud, expansive freedom in the introduction augured well. But in the main Allegro of the first movement his relaxation in alternate sections, smoothing out the rhythmic contours, made for a push-pull effect in the long term, which weakened the overall form. He did something similar in the over-long finale, as if he couldn't quite believe in Schumann's manic obsessiveness. But the intervening Aria was beautifully done, with some particularly rich playing when the left hand took the initiative, and the Scherzo was alert and fiery, the central Intermezzo strong and forthright in its gawky rhetoric.
The recital's second half was the performance of Kissin's latest recording – of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. No pianist has ever played this warhorse more powerfully, nor with greater wealth of character. "The Market at Limoges" was a bit too aggressive, instead of happily bustling, but everything else was wonderfully compelling, and the "Catacomb" movement, with Mussorgsky's ghost as it were calling from another world, was spellbinding.
Yet the greatest pleasures of the evening came with the encores, because they were unexpected. (The odd thing is that after Kissin announced each one in his alarming lisp, he needed no time to think himself into the music's mood.) Glinka's "The Lark", arranged by Balakirev, was floated in the most exquisite colours, its more effulgent passages brilliantly filled out; and Rachmaninov's arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream flickered with ravishing iridescence. Then Liszt's Rigoletto Paraphrase, and in spontaneous agreement, almost the entire audience rose to its feet and roared.
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