Johann Sebastian Bach-Ferruccio Busoni: Toccata in C Major
Robert Schumann: Sonata # 1
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
“At about the age of six or seven, I realized that of all the invisible powers the one I was destined to be most strongly affected and dominated by was music.”
Hermann Hesse, Gertrude
Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni wasn’t actually born with a hyphen preceding his name, but he has come down in musical history far more famously as the consummate arranger of Bach for the modern keyboard than for any of his own original compositions. Busoni’s treatments of the Baroque master transcend any sort of simple piano transcription, being instead newly composed pieces which exhibit extremely thoughtful architecture, grandness of scale, and deeply emotional content. Pianists as disparate as Horowitz and Serkin were champions of these twentieth century glimpses into the eighteenth century soul and a choice of one of them to open a recital at Carnegie Hall speaks volumes as to the seriousness of purpose of its communicant. Busoni also shares something of a life experience with Evgeny Kissin, once a touted prodigy but now, at the advanced age of 30, a fully mature artist of the highest caliber. To speak of such mundane matters as technique when one plays at such an exalted level as Mr. Kissin is a bit precious; suffice it to say that he has achieved a state of total self-confidence and consistent excellence of execution. Now past the need to prove himself, Kissin can settle in to a long career of musical communication on the most poetic of planes. Certainly the sold-out audience, with the addition of a huge contingent of stage seats, asserts his popularity; his mission now is to perform big works in a style normally reserved for those larger than life legends of the past.
I am at the temporal (if not the spiritual) age where one begins to characterize all living performers as intrinsically inferior to the denizens of some nebulous “golden age”, but if I were to loosen the grip of nostalgia just a tad, I would be willing to admit Evgeny Kissin as at least an apprentice at the entrance to the halls of musical Valhalla. His reading of the Bach-Busoni was that good, filled with drama and power, building reverentially a glorious edifice of exalted philosophy and complex satisfaction. His interpretation is most notable for its strength (both physical and emotional) and its cleanliness: each note is struck in its exact center. When transferring this extreme skillset to the effusive romanticism of Robert Schumann, Mr. Kissin embarked on a rendition of the Sonata # 1 that was both poignant and profound. Here the ueberfleuss of the poet was tempered and enhanced by a magnificent spirit of controlled intensity; one could experience the depths of Schumann’s emotions and still feel confident that there would be no excessiveness or intonational waffling. As a teenager, Kissin exhibited (like Midori) a mature conception of each piece that he performed, a secret knowledge revealed that he already understood the process necessary to reach the emotional center of each work, even when the journey was only partially traveled. Now is his moment; he can apparently achieve this state of satori at will, given enough time to prepare properly. Nothing, every moment of this recital seemed to emphasize, is beyond his reach.
What a strange piece is Pictures at an Exhibition! It includes so much latitude for expressiveness as to daunt even the most gifted of interpreters. Kissin started out brilliantly, infusing much color and variety into the promenades and presenting a truly mysterious Old Castle. But showiness got the better of him as he seized an opportunity to play the entire middle section as fast as he possibly could. Just because one is able to perform with this much torque and still maintain a high level of accuracy (he, by the way, could not) does not mean that one should. Much of the subtlety in the musical portraits was simply trampled; his chicks were all born premature. Here it was evident that the bad habits of youth are still clinging to this still developing artist; I have no doubt that in time he will shed even this last bit of hubris and reach yet another higher level of musicianship. Kissin is close to, but not quite at, the spot where he no longer needs to show off his talents, rather his talents will soon show off his depth of feeling and sincere need to communicate the greatest intellectual endeavors of Western civilization to a thankful public.
Until then, we are the richer for experiencing this master of the keyboard. His soulful reading of a Tchaikovsky Nocturne was a beautiful first encore, in many ways the finest performance of the evening. His attempt to outdo both Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff in the latter’s arrangement of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo fell unfortunately into the “look what I can do” category, but his sensitive traversal of the Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase was exceedingly impressive; somehow he even makes the interminably blowsy runs more than just virtuoso fodder. Evgeny Kissin may always be a work in progress, but it is work upon the most intricate plateau of heavenly craftsmanship.
Frederick L. Kirshnit