Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kissin sets the standard at Celebrity Series

Kissin at the keyboard last Sunday. Photo: Robert Torres

Among classical pianists, Evgeny Kissin perhaps embodies the deepest clash between personal and musical affect. His specialty is late Romantic/early Modernist extremity - and we got plenty of that in a program back-loaded with Scriabin - but his performing persona is hardly that of some wild Liszt-o-manic virtuoso; he instead evinces much of the child prodigy he once was, and exudes a mood of slightly poignant isolation.

In a way, this only throws the passionate focus of his music-making into higher relief - Kissin can easily seem the kind of innocent musical seer (or mystic) that many classical fans secretly crave to believe in. It is also, perhaps, what makes him the perfect conduit for Scriabin, the music mystic par excellence, who made much of his supposed affliction by synesthesia (although some contemporaries doubted his claims), was prone to writing "I am God" in his journal, and whose ultimate goal was a massive multi-media spectacle in the Himalayas that was meant to dissolve the physical world in bliss.

Alas, the planned global orgasm never came to pass - we're all still here; but as a kind of consolation prize, this mystic left behind plenty of virtuosic piano pieces, and Kissin essayed several of them last Sunday in his crowd-pleasing appearance with Celebrity Series at Symphony Hall.  The first of these was the most gripping: the luminous turmoil of Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor (Op. 19) is meant as a portrait of the changeable sea, and is clearly a kind of keyboard precursor to Debussy's La Mer, although shaded in moodier, perhaps moonlit, tones. And under Kissin's fingers, Scriabin's surging overlays of notes did conjure liquid depths, both murky and translucent - before the sonata's second movement suddenly accelerated into a thrashing storm (whose challenges Kissin carried off brilliantly).

An ensuing suite of études from the same composer's Op. 8 (a set of twelve) likewise impressed, but in the end these are only showpieces, I'm afraid, alluring as their impacted textures (think Chopin on steroids) and complex syncopation may be. Still, Kissin essayed each beautifully, cleanly elucidating the subtly displaced rhythms of Nos. 2 and 4, and teasing out the soft song of No. 5, and likewise capturing the climactic crash of the fiendish No. 12 (which brought cheers from the crowd).

Earlier in the program, Kissin flexed deeper interpretive chops with Schubert's rarely-heard Sonata in D Major (D. 850)  which is something of a curiosity. It comes late in the composer's all-too-brief career, and you can sense in it his strange position at the cusp of two musical cultures - it's an unstable mix of strict classical structures and nascent Romantic gestures. Thus the opening Allegro canters along with tripping sets of scales and blocky chords, while the rondo that begins the final movement is so rigid it feels almost child-like. But the second movement (Andante con moto) develops into a brooding, wandering song, and the finale seems to almost yearn to bring these opposed impulses into some sort of truce. Kissin himself seems poised near something like Schubert's own position, with a gift for Romantic passion but an instinctively distant technical finish - and so it was perhaps unsurprising that he pulled off both modes, and their final reconciliation, with persuasive subtlety.

But the real surprises came in the encores. Kissin made us wait for them, a bit - but then served up three stunners in a row. First came a transcription of Bach's Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E-flat (BWV 1031) - unadorned, yet quietly authoritative, and utterly haunting, its lonely melody felt like a personal statement. Then more fireworks, with another Scriabin étude, and finally, a work that could be the centerpiece of many another program, Chopin's commanding Polonaise in A-flat Major (Op. 53) - as a third encore. More amazing still, it was dazzling, from its opening call-to-arms to its victorious, keyboard-spanning closing runs. By now the crowd was almost tired from applauding, but this kind of bravura demanded one last adulatory stand.

And it's worth noting that Kissin's triumph is only the first of a week of remarkable Celebrity Series appearances. Tonight the Israel Philharmonic, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, performs Bruckner in Symphony Hall. And tomorrow, in Jordan Hall, the Takács Quartet (one of my favorite ensembles) essays Bartók (Quartets 1, 3 & 5). Friday night brings us the inimitable Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott in a varied program, again in Symphony. And Sunday afternoon, conducting superstar Gustav Dudamel will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic from the same podium. All promise spectacular music, although I will be surprised if any best the heights that Evgeny Kissin reached last Sunday.

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