When the 28-year-old Russian piano genius Evgeny Kissin takes his bows, it has the austere formality of some ancient military protocol. First he bows forward (slowly and deeply), then more bows, one right and one left. At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where Kissin performed to rapturous appreciation on Monday night, he completed three more to the audience behind the stage. He repeated the sequence during the encores, demanding that his public demand him back.
They did, and he wore the faintest trace of a beatific smile, as if he were finally ready for the Assumption.
Everything about Kissin is a throwback not just to the past, but to the glorious past of violin heroes and piano masters. He is now the reigning young prince among romantic piano virtuosos. Ten years ago, when he was a very promising prodigy, the crown looked a bit big for his head. Today he wears it confidently.
Kissin's all-Russian program, which he has been taking to select concerts around the country, is his first major foray before the public into the music of his homeland. More significantly, it is his first major foray into repertoire of the piano titans to whom he is very often compared: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter. Throughout his glorious early years, he both flirted with and avoided the comparisons, a sensible policy because they are usually vulgar and almost always the product of record company hype machines.
In the repertoire presented last night by the Washington Performing Arts Society, his technique was transcendental and his control over every note was absolute--from the yearning peak of a lyrical melody to the details of chromatic figuration that make Rachmaninoff's Op. 39 "Etudes-Tableaux" blaze with the white light of Debussy. He was like a man playing 10 chess games at once.
Kissin has been criticized both for his understated emotionalism and for the occasional glassy, overloud note. There were a few of the latter Monday night, though all of them were compensated for by an astonishingly delicate pianissimo control in other passages.
As for Kissin's supposed lack of emotionalism, it seems to be a product of his musical self-image, an image crafted on the model of regal virtuosos who always leave a little mystery behind when they play. In Scriabin's seething Sonata No. 3, he delighted in bringing small elements of the music to the bursting point without ever crossing it.
In the Rachmaninoff etudes, which occupied the first half of the program, he marshaled his inexhaustible resources not just within individual pieces, but over the entire cycle. Throughout the cycle, there were crescendos and climaxes of such force that comparison to Vladimir Horowitz isn't hyperbole; it's inevitable.
Kissin ended his program with Balakirev's "Islamey," which, in terms of traditional finger challenges, is one of the most difficult pieces--if not the most--in the virtuoso canon. It went out of fashion for decades in the middle part of this century, an angry and reserved time when mere ornament and display were almost criminal.
Many of the pianists who play it now do so only as a stunt or a self-conscious reference to the past. Kissin plays it because he can, which is the age-old explanation of why great virtuosos (musicians, dancers, actors) climb unnecessary mountains.
Kissin played it last and fast, after a grueling program. It sounded like an athlete's sudden burst of end-of-the-game adrenaline-fueled energy, stunningly fleet and accurate and as musical as one can make this kind of delightfully silly shocker.
There is a level of pure virtuosity beyond which the rules of taste are irrelevant; for people who can play this well, even pure technical display is beautiful. Kissin, like a handful of pianists this century, plays at that level.
CAPTION: At the Kennedy Center, Evgeny Kissin's technique was transcendental and his control over every note absolute.