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The Ever-Evergreen Evgeny Kissin

March 20, 2014

Evegny KissinThe notion that a former child prodigy does not grow past earlier fame was dispelled in the very first measure of the Schubert Sonata in D-major, D.850, in a long-awaited solo recital by Evgeny Kissin at Davies Symphony Hall. Kissin, who shocked the world in the 1980s performing with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra at age 14, was hailed as the proof of Soviet superiority, and continued to win awards and accolades from around the world, in the following decade.

With that very first measure though, Kissin proclaimed to the world that he is not the prodigy Kissin we so adored 30 years ago, but a mature artist with much sophistication. The opening authoritative chord was followed by repeated chords that imbued life into the music by giving it motion and direction. Schubert’s signature distant modulations were handled with clear intentions, giving different colors and characters to different keys. Lyrical lines floated well above the accompaniment with distinct colors, as well.

Even with all the markers of a mature and highly sensitive artist, Kissin nevertheless maintained the youthful energy in the music, particularly in its numerous Haydnesque parts. He brought much humor and lightness, yet there also was a luxuriant sense of the time-space continuum through exquisite and subtle gyrations of the rhythm, and by letting the quietest of the pianissimo to fill the hall. His quietly projected tones were pure and unadulterated, giving an ethereal sense of the still moment.

Another element Kissin never lost is the sensitivity and the dexterity of his finger tips. Throughout the program, he displayed this not with fast passages with giant leaps, but by how he manipulates the inner voices. Lesser pianists do not possess the ability to clearly distinguish the melodic line from the fluttering accompaniment, when both are played simultaneously with one hand. This technique clearly elevates the melodic lines, with different colors and textures for the accompaniment and inner voices, giving a clearer outline of the music.

Scriabin Sonata-Fantasy, Op.19 followed the intermission. Though relatively small in scale, spanning 12 minutes in two movements, the vast contrast distilled into the compact space left the audience breathless. The “call and answer” of the 1st movement, shared with the 1st movement of Scriabin’s third sonata, and the volatility of the 2nd movement, also shared with the 4th movement of the later sonata, were executed with no apologies, leaning on the piano to create an earth-shattering roar in the violently ecstatic moments. Yet the transcendental, meditative moments were tranquil, indulging in the long sustain notes and the rich acoustics of the hall, letting the faintest of the pianissimo disappear into the thin air.

I was unable to decipher the reason for choosing the seven particular études out of 12, but they effectively illustrated the precociousness of the composer, who too was considered a prodigy. The technical challenges in the pieces were summarily pushed aside, and Kissin brought out the youthful passion erupting out of the pieces, many of which contain fast octave passages. The ninth étude, in G-sharp Minor, was particularly rich in drama, with a full orchestral palette of sound. You could almost hear a brass section calling out in octaves throughout the piece.

The audience showered Kissin with the most enthusiastic and longest-lasting ovation in my recent memory ... some even indulged taking “selfies.”

The best-known of the 12, the last étude, made famous by none other than the late Horowitz, was full of passion and drama, but the octave lyrical line of middle section soared freely, completely unencumbered by the shackles of the gravity, or lesser technique. Kissin unequivocally hit a home-run, out of the park.

The audience showered Kissin with the most enthusiastic and longest-lasting ovation in my recent memory. The crowd gathered in front to offer him flowers, and, in the typical 2014 style, some even indulged taking “selfies.” Kissin himself seemed to bathe in the moment, taking long pauses between bows.

The adoring fans were rewarded with three encores: a solemn interpretation of Bach-Kempff Sciliano, an emotional Scriabin Etude No.1 in C-sharp Minor, Op.8, then a triumphant reading of Chopin Polonaise A-flat Major “Héroïque,” Op.53. The exuberance in the Polonaise was perhaps a little over-the-top, but it was a fitting end to a magnificent evening. This concert was a clear example of what today’s prodigies must aim for. You have been warned.

Ken Iisaka is a pianist, a software engineer, and bon vivant living in Foster City.