Evgeny Kissin is much more than pure sound and fury
Think of Evgeny Kissin, who emerged as a boy wonder back in the 1980s, and you think of technical perfection, of immaculate delivery without peer. You think of repertoire that’s virtuosic and romantic.
And, if you’ve been following his career, you’ll think of a slightly tarnished reputation, although the tarnish seems to have done nothing to diminish his popular appeal. The gripe has been pretty straightforward. Kissin, it’s said, is fond of playing too loud.
If you went to his recital at the NCH on Sunday you might well have wondered what all the complaints have been about. In Haydn (the Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI: 49) and Beethoven (the Sonata in C minor, Op. 111) he was in this regard, as it were, on best behaviour.
Yes, he thundered a bit in the opening of the Beethoven. But who doesn’t? And he also communicated the first movement’s richness of argument, and clarified its rapid counterpoint with am astonishing consistency. This was anything but a sound-and-fury approach. It was respectful, correct, highly observant. The simple presentation of the second movement Arietta was disarmingly straightforward, the filigree which followed as of the finest silk. It was all, you might say, like one of those impossibly detailed images that professional photographers come up with, as against the norm of a slightly blurry, awkwardly framed quick shot from a mobile phone.
The Haydn sonata was equally thoughtful and controlled, the music classically sculpted, the details rendered with impossible-seeming clarity. It’s heartening to know that anyone can play the piano with such scrupulousness. And yet – Kissin is not actually a prober. Thunder or no, and perfection notwithstanding, there’s a kind of distance, of aloofness, which can’t help but remind one that these works can be played less well but with more profundity.
After the interval, in Schubert (a selection of four of the Impromptus) and Liszt (the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12), all was different. There was an ease and relaxation in the Schubert that translated into an atmosphere of reflective wisdom. The Liszt was in the fiery, barnstorming mould that sets the heart racing and brings audiences to their feet. Two highly-contrasted encores followed, a soft-contoured account of the Gluck/Sgambati Melody and a riveting, jaw-dropping performance of Liszt’s Transcendental Study No 10. This was playing that no one in the hall is likely to forget in a hurry.
* Unforgettable too, and for very different reasons, was the concert of music by a celebrated American composer at the Béal Festival in Dublin, which ran from Wednesday to Friday. Robert Ashley turned 82 earlier this year, and his work has been unaccountably neglected in Ireland. Well, unaccountably is probably too strong a word. Ashley would probably fit into that generously filled category of American mavericks. His speciality is opera, but not opera as you might expect to find it. Ashley sees scale and resources as having no bearing on what can be described as opera. One person is enough, and with a performer as extraordinary as American baritone Thomas Buckner one can see why.
The pieces that Béal presented – The Producer Speaks, When Famous Last Words Fail You, and World War III Just the Highlights – makes music out of words. They’re not exactly sung (although they sometimes are), but they’re not exactly spoken. Nor do they fall into the category of Sprechstimme that Schoenberg dreamt up for his Pierrot Lunaire.