Hearing the pianist Evgeny Kissin is one of the reliable pleasures of concert-going. By the same token, we hold him to the highest possible standards — the ones he himself has set. Measured against regular performances, his Washington Performing Arts concert on Wednesday night at Strathmore was excellent. Measured against his own, it was slightly less than that.
Let’s be clear: Kissin can do anything he wants, technically and expressively, on a piano. The question, on this level of ability, is what it is he wants to express. And he opened the concert with a performance of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata that was on such a level of mastery and nuance, as if the piano were an extension of his hands in an intimate dialogue, it may have simply set the bar too high for anything to follow. In the Rondo, in particular, the way he laid out the theme, as gentle and limpid as spring air, and then steadily, lovingly nudged it in different directions with each ensuing iteration, made the work sound completely new.
And Prokofiev’s 4th sonata in c minor, which followed, was a bracing and powerful counterweight: all Constructivist angles, black and silver, brash and martial, with the composer’s distinctive, slightly dissonant harmonic fingerprint emerging clearly in the lyrical, slightly antic third movement.
The second half of the program, on paper, promised to be pure pleasure: three Chopin nocturnes (including nos. 1 and 3 from Op. 9), six mazurkas (drawn largely from Opp. 6 and 7), and Liszt’s 15th Hungarian Rhapsody, the “Rakoczy March,” as a finale. And yet here, in what should have been Kissin’s wheelhouse, he missed the mark – in part by overstating his case. With his authority, and his big sound, he seemed to be making a claim for the importance of each of these small works, trying to inflate them to appear on the same scale of the first half of the program — and thereby losing some of the sense of authenticity that made his Beethoven and Prokofiev, in very different ways, so compelling. The nocturnes felt a little dry, between all of the heavy lifting, and the mazurkas, a little labored, though he was clearly not playing to stereotype, particularly with the anticlimactic, resigned endings of both the c minor nocturne (Op. 48, no. 1) and the C-sharp minor mazurka (Op. 41, no. 1), at the ends of both respective sets. The Liszt, by contrast, felt simply histrionic, beneath the dazzling fingerwork.
Encores tend to be a planned part of the program; Kissin, certainly, demonstrated this by starting off with the second Op. 48 nocturne. He followed this with Liszt’s arrangement of Paganini’s Etude no. 5, and concluded, briefly, with a theme from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, a final brief burst of citric color. What stayed in mind, though, was the Beethoven.