Where you hear affects response to what you hear

SOUNDS ADVICE

August 08, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

While this may not come as a surprise to many of my readers, I'm sometimes off base in my musical judgments.

This came home with startling (and ego-deflating) clarity recently when I received Evgeny Kissin's new recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA Red Seal). There is no recent recording for which I waited with such anticipation. I visited Boston in January to hear Kissin's three performances of the piece -- the ones from which the recording was made. I thought the performances among the most spectacular I had ever heard. I fully expected Kissin's new record to place him among the handful of giants -- the composer himself, Vladimir Horowitz, By- ron Janis, Van Cliburn and Martha Argerich -- who have vanquished this Mount Everest of the pianist's repertory.

Imagine my surprise when I heard a statement of the concerto's opening theme that made it sound as if the pianist were sleepwalking. The performance didn't get any better. In the first movement cadenza, the massive chords never led to an orgasmic resolution; the slow movement was insufficiently dreamy; and the finale never short-circuited the nervous system as great performances of this piece are wont to do.

Unwilling to accept the possibility that I had overvalued what I had heard in Boston, I came up with a theory. In patching together the record from the three performances that RCA had taped, Kissin's producer selected the wrong parts, opting for accuracy over excitement. So I obtained unedited tapes of two of the performances I had enjoyed so much.

Guess what? The tapes were as disappointing as the CD. How could I have been so misled? And, secondarily, why couldn't the 21-year-old Kissin, the most brilliant Chopin player of his generation, come up with a better performance of the greatest of all Slavic concertos?

I was in Boston to interview Kissin, not to review him, but I must admit that I would have given him a rave. Among the things that this experience teaches is that listening to a record and listening in a concert hall are different phenomena.

When we listen to a recorded performance we hear it in the context of other records. We can stop the performance at any time and put another on. In the age of the compact disc, we can even compare the same few measures in several different performances. Listening in the concert hall is more passive. If I do not like the way someone plays the opening of the Rachmaninoff Third, I cannot hit the eject button on my CD player and select another. And because you choose to sit in the concert hall, you're more likely to listen with an open mind and to enjoy what you're offered.

Add to this the important visual aspect of listening to live music. When you listen to the Rachmaninoff Third live -- no matter how many times you have heard it -- you cannot fail to be aware of how difficult it is, how much strength it demands and what stamina it requires. And when you hear a shy young man, who looks even younger than his 21 years, conquer its technical difficulties with such ravishing playing, you cannot fail to be impressed. There are details in Kissin's performance that continue to take my breath away. Rachmaninoff put some of his most cruelly demanding writing in the utmost reaches of the keyboard so that it might penetrate the massive orchestration. Almost all pianists resort to a certain amount of clattery percussiveness in these passages; Kissin made them sound beautiful -- almost as if he were singing rather than striking keys that make hammers hit tightly wound steel strings.

There was plenty to admire in Kissin's playing, but it took listening to his record in the objectivity of my living room to realize that the totality of the performance wasn't equal to the sum of its parts.

But that begs the question of why the performance wasn't better. I can start by pointing out a few particulars in the first movement. The composer marks the opening "Allegro non tanto" ("fast, but not too much"); then he marks a series of 16th notes "piu mosso" ("more agitated"); and, then as the piece moves toward the cadenza, Rachmaninoff asks for "piu vivo" ("more briskly"). Kissin responds to the beauty of the piece in a linear sense, but not to its central pulse and drive. He plays the opening very slowly indeed, honoring "non tanto" more than "allegro." Then he accelerates dramatically in the "piu mosso" section, speeding up even more markedly when the composer calls for "piu vivo." This destroys the sense of proportion in the first movement and robs it of the opportunity to develop momentum.

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