A Tale of Two Pianists

by Sedgwick Clark

Evgeny Kissin

Two pianistic superstars played two days apart last weekend at Carnegie Hall. I had avoided their recitals for years but thought I should try again since I was in town for the weekend. The first was Evgeny Kissin, 41. His prodigious prowess is documented from his earliest years at the keyboard, and in 1995 he became Musical America’s youngest Instrumentalist of the Year. For a time he seemed to grow with each concert, but by the end of the decade his playing had become fussy and self-regarding.

Not so last Friday night, however. Perhaps most impressive throughout was Kissin’s knowing sense of rubato, a depth of emotion without a hint of calculation. He began with Haydn’s E-flat Sonata, No. 49–the one with the repeated da-da-da-duh motive in the first movement that Beethoven would later “borrow” to open his Fifth Symphony. The pianist’s approach vacillated between classical and romantic, and maybe he’ll make up his mind someday. But there was no doubt of Kissin’s emotional identification with Beethoven’s final sonata, Op. 111. Demonic in the first movement and with a superbly sustained adagio molto semplice e cantabile in the second, the maturity of his insight left me breathless and, with the final trills, shaken. No performance I have heard from him in concert or on record quite prepared me for this reaction.

Schubert composed his four Impromptus (1827) the year before his death at age 31, and Kissin’s muted, pensive playing after intermission reminded one of Claudio Arrau’s dictum that Schubert’s late music must be interpreted with “the proximity of death” in mind. The final work, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor, brought down the house with an old-fashioned demonstration of virtuosity that sent the audience roaring to its feet—no showing off, just pure, staggering feats of Lisztian pianism. He was rewarded by a young female fan, not with the usual flowers but with a teddy bear. Wonder of wonders, he actually grinned.

Was the audience trying to compete? I know it’s allergy season, but the uncovered coughing, rustling, the cell phone that inevitably rang in the Beethoven’s quietest moment, the incessant dropping of personal belongings and programs (which have become so laden with donors’ names that they sound like small detonations when they hit the floor), made me contemplate joining the N.R.A. All the more astonishing that Kissin’s concentration was so complete.

Maurizio Pollini

Anyone who has attended Maurizio Pollini’s concerts regularly has a memory bank of unforgettable performances from Bach to Chopin to Beethoven to the European avant-garde: In my account, Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto with Boulez and the NYPhil, Chopin Etudes, Boulez’s Sonata No. 2 and Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke X, Beethoven’s Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas leap immediately to mind. In all these, his perfect dexterity, clarity of voicing, and rigorous intellect overcome such deficiencies as brusque phrasing, lack of expressiveness, and monochromatic piano tone.

These qualities, good and bad, had become all too predictable in recent years, and I preferred to live with my memories and his best recordings. But he was playing an all-Beethoven program that included those two sonatas, and I thought these performances would be instructive. Indeed, his previously infallible fingerwork appears to be a thing of the past. In the opening Pathétique Sonata, smudged passagework and uneven runs were alarming, but he has always taken a while to warm up. The Waldstein was hardly an improvement, though, and charmless besides. The little Sonata No. 22, Op. 54, was an incoherent rush of notes. The Appassionata at least succeeded in its obsessive, unrelenting drive, but the two Bagatelles for encores were tossed off with the least charm and shape of the evening. You’d never know it from the audience response, which was loud and long.

His advocates like to say that his artistry is “controversial,” but that’s a copout. I’ll stick with my memories and selected CDs as a reminder of his best days.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

5/9 at 7:00. Avery Fisher Hall. Audra McDonald in Concert: Go Back Home.

5/10 at 7:30. Carnegie Hall. Spring for Music. Detroit Symphony/Leonard Slatkin. Ives: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (complete).

Comments are closed.