Saturday, March 5, 2011

The perfectionist

Pianist Evgeny Kissin.
It's hard to criticize Evgeny Kissin's technique - as I think anyone who attended his Celebrity Series concert last Wednesday would have to agree; in an all-Liszt concert that may have been, note for note, the most demanding program I've ever heard in my life, Kissin was pretty much perfection. Plus there's really no point in claiming that - as is the case with, say, Lang Lang - while the technique may be there, the musicianship isn't (at least not always). With Kissin, the musicianship is there too. It's all there.  His playing is as thoughtful and evocative as it is breath-takingly accurate.  It's simply perfection.

Whether or not Liszt is musical perfection is another question entirely, I grant you.  This is the bicentennial of the composer's birth, and so Kissin devoted his entire program to the compositional pyrotechnics of the protean pianist.  But to my mind, a list comprised only of Liszt always seems a long one, and often begins to sound a bit thin (albeit spectacularly so).

Don't get me wrong - Liszt is obviously an important composer; but he's more important historically than he is musically, it seems to me.  He prefigures all sorts of cultural and conceptual developments - his virtuosity on the keyboard made him a "rock star" before there were rock stars (indeed, he was the first performer to dare to stage 'solo recitals' - he even coined the term!). And his many compositions foreshadow impressionism, the symphonic poem, and in general a new freedom in thematic transformation.

Yet there's often a slight gap in musical interest at the core of Liszt's compositions - a core (perhaps not coincidentally) that's often hard to perceive, because it's covered in so much fingered filigree.  And then there's the simple problem that while in formal terms Liszt is deeply original, tonally he's often derivative; indeed, in the case of  the "Funérailles," you really feel the Chopin estate should get a royalty every time the piece is played (contemporaries actually assumed it was intended as a tribute to the Polish composer, who had died in the year of its composition; but Liszt denied this).

Still, there are wonders in the Liszt catalogue, some of which Kissin essayed here.  He brought off the Sonata in B Minor, perhaps the most coherent piece of music of the evening, with dazzling assurance and a touch so precise and yet so gentle that the dozens of arpeggios fluttering in the upper reaches of the keyboard seemed to evaporate like clouds.  Meanwhile, during the emotionally deeper "Vallée d'Obermann," from the influential Années de pèlerinage,  Kissin seemed to wring every ounce of poignance from the haunting theme at the heart of the piece.

It seemed to me, however, that Kissin saved the best for last - his first two encores were beautiful derivations from Schumann ("Widmung") and Schubert ("Soirées de Vienne Valse"), while the last was Liszt's own famous "Liebesträum," one of his most evocative original works for piano. These interpretations, like the rest of the program, were peerless, but a touching little drama of loneliness seemed to play out on stage alongside their musical performance. Mr. Kissin, once a child prodigy and now a 30-year-old soloist, exuded a strange diffidence on stage as the crowd called him back for encore after encore. I don't think I've ever seen, in fact, something quite so close to alienation before something so close to adulation (the Symphony Hall audience just wouldn't let him go). It seemed to play out as a kind of poignant comment on the rock-star phenomenon that Liszt himself set in motion almost two hundred years ago.

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