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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Concert Review: Putting His Fingers to Work

Evgeny Kissin plays Schubert and Scriabin.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Evgeny Kissin. Photo by Sasha Gusov.
Since making his concert debut in Moscow at the age of 10 in 1981, the pianist Evgeni Kissin has astonished listeners with his prodigious technique, playing a wide repertory centered on the Romantic repertory. On Monday night, Mr. Kissin returned to the stage of Carnegie Hall with a program that bridged the beginning and end of that era, juxtaposing the mature music of Franz Schubert and with early works from Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

The opening movement of Schubert's D Major Sonata (D. 850) struck a proper balance between jaw-dropping speed and the song-like melodic lines that are at the heart of this composer's work. Mr. Kissin's hands appeared to float over the keys as he led off each repetition of the main theme with a very fast left-hand run, using his thumbs and index fingers to occasionally give the illusion of a third hand on the keyboard.

The slow movement followed, opening at tempo but slowing down to explore the melody in a leisurely manner in the final bars. The flashiest playing came in the Scherzo, with Mr. Kissin driving the triple-time dance rhythms with notes rolled from his shoulders and resounding in the auditorium. The folksy theme that opened the final Rondo led into variation and repetition, opening the floodgates for the pounding rhythms that formed the movement's climax.

Although Scriabin departed this plane of existence 99 years ago, Scriabin remains a divisive figure whose work continues to challenge pianists and listeners alike. (Even the Playbill for this concert insinuated that the composer was perpetually inebriated.) His music has a feverish quality, from the Chopin-esque visions of the earliest sonatas and etudes to the composer's late period, when he wandered into mystic territories, writing works in a kaleidoscope of unusual musical colors.

Mr. Kissin's Scriabin selections focused on that early period. He opened with the Sonata No. 2 (labeled by the composer a Sonata-Fantasie.) It's first movement starts slowly and builds to a raging, muscular climax that resounded with the fury of the ocean at high tide. The final section was all dappled moonlight, with luminous piano tone from Mr. Kissin, slow and poetic. The second movement was all technique, a rampaging beast built around a single, obsessively repeated rhythmic figure.

The Op. 8 Etudes have the first hint of what would later happen to Scriabin's music. But in the F# minor Etude (No. 2) the music was redolent of Chopin, with heady, almost ethereal textures coming from the keys. Mr. Kissin then offered three sets of contrasting pairs. The rising figures of No. 8 were played with great subtlety and control. No. 10 was all nervous energy in the outer movements with the staccato theme returning with a vengeance in its last section. No. 11 was bleak and almost existential in its slow, descending spiral. Finally, the jaw-dropping No. 12 proved a workout for artist and audience as Mr. Kissin slalomed through its considerable technical challenges.

The first encore was Bach: the Siciliano for Flute and Harpsichord. (heard here in a piano arrangement by the late Wilhelm Kempff.) It was mannered and slightly dull. But it proved a sensible choice: a welcome palate-cleanser after all that Scriabin. Mr. Kissin followed it with more Scriabin, the difficult and eternally shifting No. 5 Etude from the composer's Op. 42. The concert ended with a thrilling performance of Chopin's A Major Polonaise, played with nostalgic emotion, bravura style and fearless technique.

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