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Fearlessly Secure: Evgeny Kissin at Philharmonie

Evgeny Kissin - PHOTO Anja Frers

There cannot be many pianists who can stride onto a stage as confidently as Evgeny Kissin. But this Russian star is the stuff of legends. He came to international attention aged only twelve when he performed and recorded both of Chopin’s Piano Concertos with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Now in his forties, Kissin is heralded as the great successor to the Russian Piano School for his seemingly limitless virtuosity and powerful sound.

It is impressive that Kissin does not cave under the weight of the expectations that his legendary status places upon him. But instead of cowering, Kissin remains undaunted, which was a comforting aspect for Monday night’s concert. Kissin took Beethoven’s energetic “Waldstein” Sonata at a high speed, but we knew we were always in safe hands. There was never a feeling that Kissin would lose control, or make the slightest slip. Neither did his confidence hinder more delicate moments. He could both caress the second movement’s gentle melodies whilst still projecting across the large space of the Philharmonie.

Kissin’s self-assurance is deserved. It was difficult to detect any slips in Beethoven’s exposing work. But absolute confidence is not without its drawbacks. The performance lacked any sense of risk. Beethoven’s tricky “Waldstein” Sonata was too easy for Kissin. It had become routine, perhaps even mechanical. This is not to say that his routine performance was a bad one, but it lacked the excitement of unpredictability.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor was dedicated to his friend Maximilian Schmidthof, whose suicide in 1913 had deeply affected the composer. It is a complex work, with moments of jaunty joy juxtaposed with despair. Kissin captured the complexity of the work’s emotions. Climaxes were not simply a triumph but had an underlying pain. For the first movement’s closing menacing chords, Kissin was unafraid of being blunt. But what was most impressive was the huge sound that this work unleashed. The sheer volume that closed the work that came from this single performer was astounding.

Evgeny Kissin - PHOTO Sasha Gusov

Three of Chopin’s Nocturns and six of his Mazurkas followed in the second half. It quickly became clear that Kissin has a far closer relationship with Chopin than he does with Beethoven. His effortless playing suited Chopin’s lyricism, as his fluid melodies could stream naturally and spontaneously from Kissin’s fingers. Intimacy with the music was not something that had become routine but instead displayed a special relationship between a performer and the music. This music had a deeper meaning for Kissin, and the audience were given the precious opportunity to witness the interaction between a performer and the works that he cherishes the most.

Liszt’s unapologetically virtuosic Rákóczy March closed the evening. The work is ridiculous: it is loud, difficult and not much else. But it allowed us to witness the pure power of Kissin’s playing. Though the piece lacks any subtlety, we could at least be impressed by the sheer amount of volume that Kissin sustained.

Getting up to bow, Kissin behaved as if what he had achieved – the performance of one of the most demanding works in the piano’s repertoire – was nothing out of the ordinary. And it was nothing out of the ordinary for him. Performing in front of thousands of people and dazzling them with his virtuosity has been part of Kissin’s everyday life since he was young. Kissin’s virtuosity is astounding. But if he is going to live up to his legendary status, then the excitement that comes from risk and unpredictability still has its place.

Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53 “Waldstein”
Sergei Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Op. 29
Frédéric Chopin Nocturns and Mazurkas
Franz Liszt ¬Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 in A minor, S. 244 “Rákóczy March”
Evgeny Kissin (piano)

The Berlin Philharmonie

By Hazel Rowland

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