Music Review: Pianist Evgeny Kissin at Kennedy Center

Kissin: at ease in the abstract.
Kissin: at ease in the abstract.
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Evgeny Kissin plays the piano like someone who is more at home in the world of notes than the world of feelings. It is as if he has had to learn to move past mere fluency to something deeper. He doesn't always manage it. Brilliance is his comfort zone: Strings of perfect notes flow past each other with clockwork precision, while the left hand beats out time in one Chopin etude after another. At his recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon, he alternated mechanical moments like these with a delivery that seemed deliberately halting, like someone groping in the dark for familiar objects, looking for the still center of emotion in the music.

I could understand someone not liking his playing, finding it unfeeling: mere surface brilliance. And I could understand how someone could love it passionately for its sheer ferocity -- like the bulk of the audience, on its feet for ovation after ovation. To me, the performance was so compelling precisely because of the awkward poignancy that accompanied the technical mastery. The afternoon's narrative was driven by the question of how Kissin would approach the proposition that each piece represented: whether he would dissect the music with the scalpel edge of his technique or lose himself in a kind of thoughtful emotional innocence, probing the instrument's colors with the inquisitive touch of a child.

There is no question that the former child prodigy, now 37, was more comfortable with abstraction. The program was divided between Prokofiev and Chopin, and Kissin's opening account of three of Prokofiev's piano arrangements from "Romeo and Juliet" was bright, clean and self-conscious. Juliet was a china doll, quiet and light like a ballerina atop a jewelry box; Kissin worked so hard to keep his touch soft that a couple of notes didn't sound, but the figure still lacked the ethereal, coltish yearning that usually characterizes her.

But his performance of Prokofiev's Eighth Sonata was formidable by any measure. Here was a piece that took full advantage of the player's abilities. The music was tough enough to engage him fully on a technical level, and this perhaps removed some of the self-consciousness from the more lyrical passages. Certainly after the bristling thunder and halting rumination of the first movement, the second movement was a tender Viennese waltz, dancing gracefully over the occasional dissonances with which Prokofiev mined its steps. In this massive, dark, complex piece, Kissin found a core of simplicity that focused the music, returning, after playing so fierce it sometimes threatened merely to pound, to the limping little theme that links the whole (which always sounds to me like Schubert's "Der Leiermann"), and which he played thoughtfully, as if it were a new idea to him.

Chopin is a Kissin touchstone, and it brought out his best and worst Sunday (though "worst" isn't a word that really applies to such a profound performance). He opened his powerful account of the Polonaise-Fantasie with graceful insouciance, caressing the line of notes up the keyboard as he pulled the opening statement out into a fine thread that evaporated into nothing. In the three mazurkas that followed, insouciance sometimes became downright jaunty, like a French cabaret act. The C-sharp minor mazurka (Op. 30, No. 4) seemed to have his particular interest, offered with a shining focus; the later Op. 59, No. 1 was less a dance than a quest, to which the final answer was given in a single, ephemeral note.

But on the well-trodden ground of the etudes -- he offered selections from both Op. 10 and Op. 25 -- the heavy-handedness of the Romeo crept in again, offset though it was by the fluidity of the right hand. It seemed as if he were forgetting to think about the communicative component while engaged in the beguiling act of juggling these brilliant balls from hand to hand -- which didn't actually lessen the pleasure of the act for the listener.

On one level, it was a perfectly brilliant concert by a virtuoso player. But better than that, it was a variable performance by a human one, whose attempts to confront or explore his own limitations were part of what made the afternoon particularly interesting. For his bows, he took the stage, almost impervious, offering a Mona Lisa smile before finally inclining his large head toward the roaring audience, and then, eventually, sitting to offer another of his three encores.

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