Evgeny Kissin plays Chopin to perfection


February 15, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

As Evgeny Kissin gets older his style of playing may change and his repertory may expand beyond the Romantic works he now chooses to play. But, as his recital Saturday night at the Kennedy Center made clear, it is impossible to imagine that this 21-year-old Russian -- or anyone else, for that matter -- will ever play the music of Chopin better.

Even the greatest Chopinists usually play one part of the composer's oeuvre more persuasively than others. Some are better with the "French" or "salon" Chopin (the nocturnes and waltzes); others are at their best in the "Polish" Chopin (the mazurkas and polonaises); and still others are most comfortable in the "international" works such as the scherzos, the Fantasy in F Minor and the sonatas. Kissin plays all of this music to perfection.

The pianist opened his recital with three nocturnes -- the A-flat Major (opus 32. No. 2), the C-sharp Minor (opus 27, No. 1) and the D-flat Major (opus 27, No. 2). To these pieces he brought perfectly balanced qualities of strength, poetry and technical finesse. He captured all the sentiment of the music without ever becoming sentimental, and the way in which he handled the melody and its accompaniment was a lesson to all pianists. It was hard to believe that the feathery final notes of the D-flat nocturne, which exuded an angelic songfulness, were made by an instrument in which wooden hammers strike steel strings.

The Sonata in B Minor received a perfectly proportioned reading, brilliantly executed and sharply defined. The strands of counterpoint in the first movement were strikingly delineated without impeding the music's majestic sweep. The second-movement scherzo -- which can sound too short if the difficult but important tempo relationship between the quicker outer sections and the more relaxed trio is not found -- was magical. (The sound the pianist produced had a gossamer quality that was heard by the ear the way silk is felt by the skin.) The slow movement was even more impressive. This music, with its dream-like anticipations of Debussy, is hard to sustain and it often falls apart even under experienced hands. But Kissin held it together because he once again found what seemed the perfect tempo, letting the music ebb and flow in such a way that the listener was kept in perpetual anticipation. The finale fairly exploded in its bardic surge.

In the recital's second half, Kissin continued to move from strength to strength. The Fantasy in F Minor was magnificent in the way Kissin handled the mysterious introduction, the passionate conflict of the music's ideas, the virility of the striding march just before the coda, and the purling delicacy of the conclusion. The pianist was just as sensitive to the moods and structures of seven contrasting mazurkas -- whether vigorous (G Major, opus 50, No. 1), playful (D major, opus 33, No. 2), wistful (A minor, opus 17, No. 4) or tragic (C sharp Minor, opus 50, No. 3).

The great Polonaise in F-sharp Minor concluded the recital proper in stupendous manner -- it had the kind of sweep, albeit with a more natural sense of growth and destination, that Vladimir Horowitz used to bring to it -- but there was more to come: Three encores -- an exquisitely played mazurka in C-sharp Minor, a glittering performance of the Waltz in A-flat Major, in which the pianist's treatment of the teasing melody was beguilingly seductive, and yet another stupendous outburst in the B-flat Minor Scherzo.

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