Kissin's playing seems touched by God

January 16, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Latin root of the overused word "inspired" means divine inspiration, and it is an adjective that came frequently to mind during Evgeny Kissin's piano recital Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center.

Mastery in performing music means that a musician puts an audience in touch with the composer's thoughts with as few impediments as is humanly possible. Kissin's extraordinary playing, however, connected one on an altogether more exalted level. When this 23-year-old Russian plays the piano, the art of interpretation, a secondary act of creation, approaches the primary acts we associate with people such as Mozart.

I cannot remember an occasion on which I have heard Haydn performances as beautiful as those Kissin delivered in the composer's Sonatas Nos. 30 in A Major and 52 in E-flat Major. The young pianist paid careful attention to dynamic scale, which was reduced for the earlier A Major piece (which recalls C. P. E. Bach) and was much grander in the forward-looking E-flat work (which was Haydn's last sonata and was written in response to the virtuoso challenges posed by the young Beethoven).

Kissin's detached finger work in the first sonata was uncannily light, crisp and playful; in the second, he was able to suggest an orchestral framework that included horns, trumpets and timpani. Both performances brought to mind a remark by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler to the effect that the joys of life are captured in handfuls in Haydn's music.

It was courageous for the young pianist to program Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata; it was nothing less than an act of heroism for him to perform it so romantically.

This popular sonata has been so over-played that it has all but disappeared from the concert stage. And on its rare appearances, the "authenticity-in-music" movement has inhibited the dreamy quality of the opening movement that gave the sonata its nickname.

But Kissin would have none of this, and the force of his conviction was such that he was able to roll the clock back by nearly a century. It was 1902 again, and the sustained eloquence of the piano's singing tones at its quietest levels could have been coming from Paderewski.

After intermission, Kissin's recital continued to go from strength to strength. Franck's Tristanesque "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue" usually sounds like duck soup. But this pianist's extraordinary fingers and superb pedaling exposed the contours of this otherwise murky piece, and his insights suggested ever more passionate affirmations that came to a tremendous climax in the fugue.

Brahms' "Paganini Variations" are eschewed by most pianists -- even the composer's devoted Clara Schumann wanted no part of them -- for a very good reason: The piece, filled with fireworks as it is, is infinitely harder than it sounds.

The major difficulty is that muscular problems are intertwined with musical ones. The first variation of Book II, for example, asks the pianist to do nearly impossible things in each hand at the same time that it poses a vexing problem in double counterpoint. This is a work that only one pianist in every generation seems able to play.

Today, that pianist is Kissin. The composer's killingly awkward skips sounded natural; his otherwise turgid textures were illuminated with X-ray clarity; and his impossible runs were executed with violinistic fluidity.

More miraculous still was that the young pianist was able to reveal -- beneath what is usually considered a merely intellectual study -- Brahms' beating heart.

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