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A brilliant pianist offers a so-so recital: Kissin returns to Strathmore

When great playing is routine: Evgeny Kissin offered a distanced program at Strathmore.
When great playing is routine: Evgeny Kissin offered a distanced program at Strathmore. (Bette Marshall)
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Evgeny Kissin combines two of the most valued assets for a Great Western Artist: He’s enigmatic and he’s brilliant. Brilliant, because he can do anything he wants on the piano keyboard, and enigmatic, because there’s a black-box quality to his performances, presented with an affect that gives nothing away. On Tuesday night at Strathmore, Kissin returned to Washington Performing Arts, for which he performed with Itzhak Perlman only a few weeks ago, to close out the classical season with a solo recital that showed both of these traits to an extreme degree.

The program was varied, as Kissin’s tend to be: three Chopin nocturnes followed by Schumann’s mercurial third sonata, Op. 14, on the first half, and a group of Debussy preludes followed by Scriabin’s fourth piano sonata on the second. Kissin’s excellence is such a hallmark that the precision of the details was almost business as usual — the crisp, little popcorn chords in the first movement of the Schumann bouncing off the keys as if aimed with computer sights, the runs in Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” transforming the keyboard into something soft and malleable, perhaps a bed of tapioca pearls.

Kissin plays forgotten composers, declaims poetry in stunning performance

Some of the artist’s other characteristics seemed more marked, as well. He was more emphatic than ever, even in the Chopin nocturnes (Op. 55, No. 1, with a sweet heaviness as if the notes were wading through honey; Op. 37, No. 2, more ethereal; and Op. 62, No. 2, clear-eyed and straightforward), which remained so tethered to the strong tread of the bass that they lost a little of their airborne quality. The heaviness carried over into parts of the Schumann, while some of the Debussy preludes, such as “Les collines d’Anacapri” or “La cathédrale engloutie,” were downright bangy, leaving an aftertaste of sound like a bruise in the air.

Optically, Kissin seemed to be presenting a less self-contained incarnation, bending his body back and forth over the keys as he played. Yet there was something automatic, even distanced, about the music that resulted, yo-yoing from gentleness to raw loudness with aplomb and regularity, but without creating a real sense of connection. Even the encores seemed oddly distanced: three chestnuts — Schumann’s “Träumerei,” Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” played with rubbery sprightliness, and a Chopin waltz — followed by a composition of his own. The overall sense was of more business as usual, and less inspiration.