Kissin Nothing Short Of Breathtaking

Review: Pianist Soars, Thunders And Tears Out The Heart With Brilliant Meyerhoff Performance.

April 29, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Evgeny Kissin's recital program Sunday evening in Meyerhoff Hall was loaded with some of the greatest and most difficult music ever written for the piano -- the four Ballades of Chopin and Schubert's posthumous C Minor Sonata. But in the first two pieces he played -- Beethoven juvenilia written no later than the early 1790s -- the 25-year-old Russian demonstrated what it means to be a great musician.

In other hands, the largely mild, decorative and unspectacular second Rondo of opus 51 might have sounded bland. But Kissin's treatment of the line of the piece, which unobtrusively keeps looping back upon itself, exerted a hypnotic effect upon the ear.

The next Beethoven work, the "Rondo a Capriccio" ("The Rage over the Lost Penny"), is usually treated as a virtuosic lollipop. The intensity with which the young pianist played it, however, revealed it as one of the composer's crazy experiments in exhausting the possibilities of a single theme. Kissin made it vivid, breathtaking and witty.

He played the great music on the remainder of his program with even greater intensity and intelligence and with a level of involvement that left one emotionally drained as well as exhilarated.

Schubert's C Minor Sonata (D. 958), the first of the composer's final triptych of masterpieces for the piano, is not easy to play. It is a work seemingly more anchored in the classical era than its companions in A Major and B-flat. Yet its first movement is filled with sinuous shifts in color that look forward to Wagner; its slow movement plays daringly with conventional tonality; and -- after a brief minuet -- it has a sublimely and disproportionately huge finale, a wild and obsessive gallop through so many disparate keys that in its length and repetitiousness it can all too easily sound like a gigantic memory slip.

The best way (and the one most often taken) to avoid disaster is to play it safe by emphasizing the C Minor's links to the conventional classical-era sonatas of Haydn and early Beethoven -- but that is to miss its somber grandeur, its fierceness and its psychological depth.

Kissin rarely, if ever, plays it safe.

Instead of reining in the first movement's grandly expressive gestures, he let them have their head, making them as foreboding in their thunderousness as the chromatic sequences in their restlessness. The movement's soft ending could not have been more eloquent. The slow movement, while carefully shaped, was filled with heartbreak. And Kissin unleashed the furies of the finale, transforming it into a dance of death that shrieked with fierceness.

After intermission came Chopin's Four Ballades. Kissin played No. 1 in G Minor with youthful exuberance, beginning in great pathos and progressing to climaxes of tremendous force and grandeur. There were several enormously effective moments -- including some glistening colors in the E Flat scherzando section, the crash in the bass in the measure preceding the coda, the fire with which the pianist attacked the dissonances of the coda itself and the power of his octaves at the conclusion.

If the First Ballade could have used more relaxation and lyricism, the succeeding three lacked nothing. The Second Ballade in F Major starts quietly enough and ends with a plaintive sigh. But in between come fiery episodes in which the piano positively erupts. Kissin played this piece as if he had forearms and wrists of steel and fingers with a built-in telescope at each tip. And besides his tigerish strength and his fantastic ability to get over the keys, there was his melting tone and his ability to balance the violent episodes with the quiet ones so that the Ballade's formal structure did not disappear into its passionate vortex.

No. 3 in A Flat is usually considered the lightest, prettiest and most graceful of the Ballades, but Kissin was able to instill a sense of bigness and drama that, without doing violence to the music, showed it in a new light. The Ballade in F Minor is the greatest of the four, and the pianist saved his best for last. Kissin preserved a noble line through all the voluptuous undulations of this maze-like work, which begins like a waltz, gathers to itself the grandeurs of Bach chorale and passionate splendors of an operatic scena and concludes in a blaze of transcendent light in a coda that numbers among the most fearsome in the repertory. Kissin played it all with a singing line, with control that testified to his interest in the broad sweep of the music rather than in pianistic effects and concluded matters thrillingly with a triumphal negotiation of the coda.

The audience responded with a standing, stamping and cheering ovation that was the most impressive this listener can remember in more than 11 years of attending performances in Meyerhoff. The pianist responded with four encores: Anton Rubinstein's transcription of the "Turkish March" from Beethoven's "The Ruins of Athens"; Leopold Godowsky's transcendentally difficult transcription of Schubert's F Minor Musical Moment; Chopin's G-flat Impromptu; and the tintinnabulation of Liszt's "La Campanella," the third of his "Paganini Etudes."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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