There are lots of great pianists and then there are a few really great pianists, and Evgeny Kissin is one of the latter. By really great, I mean that they have such supreme ability that you listen with a kind of confident comfort: They take the acrobatics of a regular recital and elevate it a notch to the level of a magic show, leaving you with no fear that they might fall and leaving you simply waiting to see what they might dazzle you with next. They also defy repertory: Audiences go to hear them, whatever they want to play.
Kissin played at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which has brought him here every couple of years. The evening was a little different from recent outings, though — to start with, it was introduced from the stage by WPAS’s new president, Jenny Bilfield. In addition, the program focused not on Chopin or Prokofiev, but on Viennese classicism — Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, with only a touch of Liszt in the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody that was the requisite virtuosic close.
Kissin does not approach classical music with tinkling delicacy. Instead, his Haydn — the E-flat sonata, Hob. XVI:49 — was wonderfully colorful and resilient. The first movement opened with a spring to its step and ended as if taken by surprise. Each movement had its own character, but all were related, from the springy opening to the even lighter and lither Menuetto finale. Kissin built a picture with layer upon layer of nuance, the left hand now emerging with the buffo figure of a bass line, the right now leaping as if mounted on springs.
But he never played merely for effect. Indeed, his playing is notable for its utter lack of artifice: There’s no pathos, affected prettiness or attempt to play on the audience’s heartstrings. There’s just him. This was clearest in Beethoven’s final sonata, Op. 111, which was the emotional heart of the evening, served up with a kind of blunt sincerity that evoked the gruffness often associated with the composer.
Many pianists play up the contrast between this sonata’s opening growl and the quiet, wistful passages that follow. Kissin, by contrast, started with a snarl in the low notes that was almost cartoonlike in its intense ferocity and held that basic thought throughout the first movement, so that, rather than a juxtaposition of two elements (the “male” and “female,” as so much music writing has it), we heard the same thought expressed in different ways, now loud, now soft, but with the same undercurrent of rawness. Even quiet playing on the keyboard’s highest notes had a touch of aggression. And in the second movement, the dancelike variation evoked not the boogie-woogie to which it’s often compared, but something more distant and ascetic and emphatic.
The music sounded like someone looking for answers, rather than offering them. It wasn’t expected or even refined, but it ultimately felt appropriate to the spirit of the work. I’ve observed before that Kissin sometimes seems to be groping for emotional expression; here, that groping became part of the expression.
The four Schubert impromptus that followed the intermission were played with the same lack of artifice: lots of ability and no sugar at all, with more emphasis on the subtle shifts of key than on the prettiness of the familiar melodies. Kissin then returned to familiar turf with the Liszt, rapid and still ferocious.
He took in his applause with the same kind of unadulterated effect he brought to his playing, less reacting to it than simply presenting it with the solidity of his presence, standing under it and occasionally offering a deep bow. It led him to three encores: a Sgambati arrangement of a Gluck “Melodie” from “Orfeo,” which brought the same kind of homespun roughness to an attempt at tenderness; Liszt’s 10th etude in F Minor, aggressive to the point of shrillness, and Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “The Trout.”