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Extraordinary Evgeny Kissin Dances Across The Keys

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page C01

Evgeny Kissin reaffirmed his stature as one of the world's great artists Wednesday night when he played the first piano recital ever presented by the Music Center at Strathmore.

Not that anybody should have been surprised. After all, Kissin, born in 1971, was already an amazing pianist before he entered his teens (a recording of the two Chopin concertos, made in Moscow when he was 12, bears this out), and his playing has only grown deeper and more thoughtful in the two intervening decades. But I suspect that even Kissin's most dedicated admirers may have been startled by the mixture of prismatic color, welling poetry, technical mastery and sheer visceral energy he unleashed at Strathmore.

Evgeny Kissin's Strathmore recital showed why he's considered one of the world's best pianists. (Washington Performing Arts Society)

It may seem impertinent to speak of a "new maturity" in a musician such as Kissin. Still, the perpetually boyish young performer, all arms and legs, who used to bolt out onto the stage like an anxious fawn, ready to explode, has given way to a confident musical statesman, who greeted the sold-out house with deep bows in all directions, then sat down calmly and began to play.

And what playing! An opening set of Chopin polonaises and impromptus combined the Apollonian intelligence and note-perfect tidiness of Maurizio Pollini with the ardor and sweet songfulness of Arthur Rubinstein at his best. Kissin brought out degrees of high tragedy in the E-flat Minor Polonaise (Op. 26, No. 2) that I've never heard before -- from the hushed, funereal chords that begin the piece, through the skittering, macabre principal melody (one that might have been penned by a 19th-century Shostakovich), through the tautly buttoned but curiously charming central interlude and then back into the darkness once more.

All of Chopin's works in dance form -- the waltzes, the mazurkas and the polonaises -- present a paradoxical challenge to an interpreter. If you actually tried to dance to these quirky pieces, you'd break your neck, and yet their rhythmic impetus should always be apparent, no matter how fluent and subjective their content. The polonaises, in particular, combine ballroom pomp with an almost martial strictness, of which Kissin made the most. Yet he still managed to play with such spacious, soulful lyricism that it seemed he had all the time in the world. I never expect to hear a more exuberant and impassioned rendition of the Polonaise in A-flat (Op. 53); just when you think Kissin has given his all, he takes everything to a new level.

The impromptus are much less formal; indeed, a piece like the Impromptu in F-sharp (Op. 36) sounds rather like a collection of wonderfully potent ideas thrown up into the air and then gathered in random order. Kissin played all four of the impromptus, including the perennially crowd-pleasing "Fantaisie-Impromptu," with the famous tune that was adapted into the pop song "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." No matter how sophisticated we may think ourselves, it is hard to banish such associations from our minds (who can listen to Borodin without hearing "Stranger in Paradise"?) but Kissin spun out the melody with such noble simplicity that it was possible to listen afresh.

The second half of the program began with a real rarity, the "Sonata Reminiscenza" in A Minor by the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), who is remembered, when he is remembered at all, for his sponsorship by one of the world's richest men, the Maharajah of Mysore, who paid for any number of Medtner recordings in the middle of the last century, to general mystification. The sonata is Schumann and water, with just a splash of modernist bitters, yet it maintains a fragile, fragrant charm, and Kissin played it with real affection.

Igor Stravinsky adapted his ballet "Petrouchka" into piano music in 1921 for Arthur Rubinstein, who fumbled his way through it lovingly for the rest of his career. That's no slight on Rubinstein, by the way: The "Petrouchka" Suite has the reputation of being unplayable, and virtually every pianist who has taken it on has been forced to fudge its most difficult passages. Not Kissin. He not only managed to race through Stravinsky's thousands upon thousands of notes but managed to make delightful, multidimensional music out of the kaleidoscopic jangle. It was spectacular playing on every level, and Kissin was rewarded with an impassioned standing ovation, which he in turn rewarded with four encores.

A word on the Music Center acoustics: I sat on the orchestra level, about 25 feet back from the pianist, and they somehow seemed a longer 25 feet than they might have at the Kennedy Center. The sound came across as rather distant and dampened at first, but I found myself adapting as the evening wore on. Strathmore would seem to be a quirky hall -- very beautiful, and marvelous for listening to an orchestra if you are on the main floor, but somewhat variable otherwise. Every time I visit, I feel that I'm learning about a different place, but the visits have been by and large a pleasure. Alas, the sounds of cell phones and items dropped on Strathmore's wood floor carried very well indeed -- and there were quite a few of them resounding Wednesday night.

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