Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall
On Friday night I had the great pleasure of seeing Evgeny Kissin perform at Carnegie Hall. It was an evening I will not soon forget.
As I entered music school in 1990, Kissin came on the scene out of nowhere. His debut performance on the same stage in November of that year at age 19 got everyone’s attention. He played 10 encores! At a later performance at Carnegie in 2007, he played 12. Kissin is essentially a part of Carnegie Hall’s DNA.
Early on, Kissin’s phenomenal technique was always the aspect of his playing that he was most known for. His flawless performances of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, played at incredible speeds, remain legendary. He created a new standard that everyone after him is held to. As he has gotten older though, his performances of deeper works such as the late piano sonatas of Beethoven have really changed my perception of his playing.
Friday night I saw a pianist who is now fully reborn. Twenty years ago he probably would’ve played Tausig’s transcription of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor much faster. The tempos for both seemed natural. The lush chords and scales of the Toccata sounded as if they were coming from an organ, the instrument the piece was originally written for. The fugue had an infectious groove that made its way throughout. The voices were independent and beautifully textured, and the pedals were utilized to perfection.
The patience and lyricism on display in the Mozart were sublime. From the first phrase it was clear Kissin chose the Adagio in B Minor (K. 540) because of its (now) obvious relationship to the Beethoven that would follow. This point was made clear when he went right into the Beethoven after a quick, appreciative bow without leaving the stage.
Beethoven’s Sonata №31 Op 110 was published 200 years ago this year. Countless other performances later, Kissin found a way to breathe new life into this masterpiece. The tempo he chose for the first movement felt slow, pushing the limits of Moderato. The opening arpeggios seemed almost too deliberate, but he quickly won me over with his unwavering commitment to this new interpretation. In his voicings, he brought out counter melodies that seemingly never existed before. The second movement again seemed slow, but it made perfect sense when considering the choices he had made in the first. I have always felt that the final movement tells the story of Beethoven going in and out of states of depression. He ultimately finds his way out of it, learning how along the way, and the piece ends triumphantly. Kissin’s take on the third movement, and the entire piece, showed that other more bombastic interpretations, including performances I have loved, got it wrong. Kissin told the same story and it ends triumphantly, but he did so without overstating the darkness or the triumph. This was about Beethoven, not Kissin.
In the second half, Kissin showed us a side of Chopin that isn’t often seen. His selection of the seven Mazurkas made them seem like movements in a larger work. Each flowed into the other seamlessly. They were playful and serious in perfect proportion. The series ended with perhaps the most famous of them all, the haunting Op 33 No 4 in B Minor. Kissin played this Mazurka so beautifully that he brought this listener to tears.
He waited until the very end to give us a quick flash of his incredible virtuosity playing Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante Op. 22. In this piece we see that Chopin’s masterful harmonic and rhythmic languages didn’t come to be by accident. Kissin played this very difficult piece with sheer delight making it look like a warmup exercise.
He was called back to the stage for 5 encores. Each time he came back out it was clear that he was grateful for the applause that was well deserved. He would give a deep bow, then take his time to look out to every corner of the hall before bowing again to show his appreciation. For the fourth encore he chose Chopin’s famous Polonaise in A-flat major which he played at a blistering but tasteful speed. The other four encores were more lyrical and subdued demonstrating that he has nothing left to prove.
This program was not just thrown together, it was clearly a contemplative and deliberate process, and it was performed brilliantly. 50 years in, Kissin is still changing the piano world with every note he plays and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.