Some unusually thoughtful playing from Kissin
Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (arr. Tausig)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio in B Minor, K. 540
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A‑flat Major, Op. 110
Frédéric Chopin: Mazurkas in B‑flat Major, Op. 7, No. 1, in G Minor, Op. 24, No. 1, in C Major, Op. 24, No. 2, in C Minor, Op. 30, No. 1, in B Minor, Op. 30, No. 2, in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3, & in B Minor, Op. 33, No. 4 – Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante in E‑flat Major, Op. 22
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
E. Kissin (© Jennifer Taylor)
The last time Evgeny Kissin was scheduled to play at Carnegie Hall was in the fateful year 2020, the first year of the pandemic and his program was to consist of Beethoven sonatas as it was also Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. This time, as he previously done on a numerous occasions, he selected one of the late sonatas, No. 31.
He opened his program with a work relatively infrequently performed nowadays, Carl Tausig’s arrangement of perhaps the most famous of Bach’s compositions, the Organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (Among the musicologists and scholars there are some doubts that is even Bach’s own opus, but let’s skip the doubts for now.) It is interesting that in the three decades plus since Mr. Kissin’s triumphal Carnegie Hall debut he played only two works of Bach and those were also not the original compositions but rather piano transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni. Obviously, Mr. Kissin feels that Bach’s solo works are not as effective in the large venues. Even if I would not necessarily agree with that assessment, I am still a great fan of all sorts of transcriptions, especially Busoni’s, and Tausig’s “re‑imagining” (to use White House lingo) of the famed piece is perhaps just a notch below the best attempts of Busoni or for that matter Franz Liszt. Tausig takes many more liberties with the original and some of it is indeed arbitrary. What is interesting is that Mr. Kissin, who previously offered us Busoni’s magnificently conceived transcriptions this time strayed from the Italian master even though among the works he transcribed from organ to piano, there is also Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Well, the purist will dismiss the whole idea, the public–including this writer–will always enjoy and appreciate what the piano can do in order to emulate the regal sound of the organ. It’s fun to hear this kind of extreme! Needless to say Mr. Kissin’s command of the textures, grandeur, and splendor was evident and probably as good as this piece is ever to receive.
Next in the program, we heard the Adagio in B minor by Mozart. In the past three decades in his New York recitals, Mr. Kissin didn’t play too many of Mozart’s works except for two sonatas. This time he turned his attention to the most enigmatic, almost otherworldly composition , the origin of which we know very little and we can only speculate what led the composer to pen this two‑section piece in the strange key of B minor, one which he used but twice in his oeuvre and only once among his piano works. It is an example of one of the most profound and touching of Mozart compositions, sometimes piercing in its inner pain and displaying depths of emotion. Here Mozart displays also a dazzling harmonic richness operating particularly in the proto‑romantic development section, which necessitates the addition of a short coda and which changes the tonality from minor to major, creating a magical effect. Finally, the prevailing sense of despair is displaced by a reassuring moment of hope in the final six measures. Mr. Kissin’s approach was rather somber and, for him, unlike other pianists such as Horszowski, Schiff, or Kempff, the Adagio is translated indeed into a slow‑paced tempo. There were many compelling moments, a beautiful touch and care given to the texture, and the unwavering sense of sadness was kept throughout. I thought that one could infuse even sadness with a bit of passion, but obviously, our artist sees this score through a different lens. Kissin’s approach to that lengthy score (15 minutes or so) posed however one important question: it has two parts and each of them, in Kissin’s interpretation, was repeated. One may wonder if Mozart himself played the work and, if so, would the composer have repeated each half. But even if he had, could one expect in Mozart’s time that each repeat will be exactly the same, without one note changed, one ornamentation added, another word with eschewing the tradition that existed and to which some pianists nowadays come back? Listening to this long piece, I have wished for some variety which alas was not to be found.
The first part of the recital ended with the penultimate Beethoven sonata, a middle one in the trilogy of late sonatas: the last part–Sonata in C minor Op. 111–was presented by Mr. Kissin some nine years ago. As we see, not for him lumping together works that supposedly “belong together” and that also goes for his oft reluctance to play the whole “opus” of Chopin mazurkas, etudes or nocturnes. This was one of the more unusual performances of the A flat Sonata, as our soloist obviously saw Beethoven’s tempo indications through his own lens and the pulse in the opening Moderato cantabile molto espressivo as well as in the third movement Adagio ma non troppo was several notches below what we are used to. I always claimed that playing slow is far more difficult than playing fast, for in slow playing there’s always a possibility of losing pulse and allowing the tempo to drag. Luckily, Mr. Kissin, through his unbelievable finger control and mental strength, was able to keep the momentum going and thus creating an extraordinary atmosphere of calm and introspection. In the famous, well‑nigh Chopinesque Arioso dolente (3rd movement), he got a gorgeous ringing sound out of his Steinway. The two faster links of the sonata–Allegro molto (2nd movement) and final Fuga–gained by being played with full control–and what a control!–rather than the customary abandon of others. I appreciated hearing all the details in the section where Beethoven suddenly treats the theme of the fugue in a manner of diminution: here Kissin masterfully delineated the compressed lines of the stretto which suddenly gained in clarity. Thus, despite some deliberate tempo from time to time, Kissin’s performance didn’t drag; rather, it allowed the listener to experience the composer’s pathos and considerable emotion. It seems obvious that Kissin sees Beethoven’s late sonatas (judged upon hearing him play the first Op. 111, then Op. 106) as music where each and every note counts and each note needs to be pronounced with the greatest care: I doubt that the composer would object to that earnest, solemn, intense reverential approach which I also happen to share.
The second part of the recital was devoted to Chopin and we heard an ample selection of mazurkas as well as a large work, the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. As I mentioned earlier, this pianist rarely plays the whole opus of mazurkas or waltzes, preferring selections from different sets. Thus, this time there were mostly mazurkas from the earlier “oeuvres” and among them the only sizable one was the last, in B Minor from Op. 33. Lest someone think that in Mazurka playing Kissin takes “marching orders” from such masters of the past as Friedman, Horowitz or Rubinstein, he would be wrong. Our pianist has obviously his own, more poetic, more subdued, and to a large extent, less dancing vision of those miniatures. Some sounded as if inspired by waltzes rather than mazur (Op. 7 No. 1), some others as the G Minor Op. 24 No. 1 were unusually pensive, while in others, I would wish for more abandon rather than a beautifully sculpted vignette in which the dance element was but suggested. The Op. 30 No. 2 and final, most significant of the group (in B Minor Op. 33 No. 4) was uncommonly poetic but also meditative and weary. Still, as far a piano playing is concerned one could only admire the beautiful sound, attention to harmonic variations and always the transparent quality of bass line, something that nowadays seems to be Kissin’s specialty. The verve and old‑fashioned virtuosity were in abundance for the Andante Spianato and Grande polonaise brillante which closed the printed program. This remarkable performance of the polonaise might have not the last ounce of elegance and sophistication but there was plenty of vigor, energy, and abandon combined with totally unaffected virtuosity. The listener had that not-often-experienced feeling that the speed itself was not the main consideration but that there would be plenty more if needed. The multitude of the fioritura that permeate this virtuosic composition was always imbued with clarity, perfect articulation and transparency. It was an impressive end to the second part of Mr. Kissin’s performance, but more was to follow.
As we know, there’s always the third part, devoted to encores as a gift to the devoted, adoring audience that would leap to its feet with the end of each selection. So the encores were, to a degree, reflective of the program: there was a solemn and serious Bach (arranged by Busoni), the Chorale Prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland that we heard on the same stage just two weeks earlier as an encore of Igor Levit, followed by Mozart’s cheerful Rondo in D Major K. 485 that often serves as a “pedagogical piece”. In this piece, Mr. Kissin offered us a traditional version that was full‑bodied, dependable, and trustworthy rather than subdued and ultra‑refined. Then came a tour‑de‑force in the form of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Op. 53 (sometimes called “Heroic”). It was noble, sincere, grand in scale and in sonority: it was truly roaring! He presented the initial section in a rather moderate, steady tempo and I was expecting that our pianist might retain that also for the famed section with the left‑hand octaves, but he followed the tradition and made a splendid showcase of his left‑hand speed and power. He concluded his recital with a wistful, simple, and quite lovely playing in another Chopin piece, the Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2.