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.

Ashley provides his own words, and the patterns, repetitions and obsessions of the text is an integral part of the ritualised, rhythmically-driven, sound-stretching inflections that Buckner made so hypnotically fascinating. It might be best to think of what was offered at Béal as a kind of shaggy-dog story from a seanchaí whose delivery has been processed into music by a man who embraces both the preposterous and the profound with wit.

The other American composer in residence at the festival was Tom Johnson, although he has long since decamped to this side of the Atlantic to live in Paris. He gave an interesting talk about the seminal years he spent in New York when minimalism was emerging (he’s strict about differentiating minimalist music from the subset of it that he calls repetitive music). He also performed his quirkily appealing Counting Music (music from spoken number patterns), heard his Formulas for String Quartet ably negotiated by the ConTempo Quartet, and heard his specially-commissioned Tick Tock Rhythms performed by the voices of EnsemBéal – the idea, fully expressed in the title, proved stronger than the piece itself.

Béal’s directors, soprano Elizabeth Hilliard and composer/performer David Bremner, want their festival to be “all about finding alternative ways (no matter how rough and ready) of thinking and experiencing, building alternative combinations of words and music”.

Smock Alley provides a lovely space, but one that leaks sound internally (the Banquet Hall, where the performances were given, is acoustically open to the foyer below) and externally (traffic and sirens were a regular nuisance). It has a woolly acoustic that blurs words with alarming effectiveness, and lacks decent seating and heating. This is rough and ready beyond reason.

I was underwhelmed by the one piece I sampled by the new improvisation group TheOpenRehearsals, flummoxed by the gap between ambition and achievement in the scrawls and projections of Aodán McCardle’s ‘Níl’ ‘Abair’ – a set of poetry readings and improvisations using projection – and heartened by the mixture of the serious and the playful in Maurice Scully’s reading of his poems.

The new works that left the strongest impressions were Gráinne Mulvey’s The Seafarer (Elizabeth Hilliard with tape), and Ailís Ní Ríain’s Eyeless, a kind of adoringly reverential altar to the voice of sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, with backing from EnsemBéal.

* You could think of Frank Corcoran’s new Violin Concerto (premièred by Alan Smale with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Warren-Green at the NCH recently) as a hard man’s homage to songfulness. The soloist cautioned the composer about music that sings, and the composer responded with a piece that he regards has having in its second movement some of the sweetest he has ever written.

Sweet, the actual piece suggests, is not quite Corcoran’s thing. A lot of his music is craggy, aggressive, harsh, as if the word rebarbative might have been invented to describe it. He often comes across as Ireland’s answer to Iannis Xenakis. The music of the Violin Concerto lacked his familiar stamp, and the milder manner – a witty reworking of Mozart in the finale notwithstanding – was like an ill-fitting suit.

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