One admittedly dualistic way to categorize classical performers is to draw a line between those whose own personalities take precedence and those who, as the critical commonplace has it, disappear into the music. In his Celebrity Series recital on Sunday, pianist Evgeny Kissin managed to do both. Kissin’s performance was not only one of extraordinary proficient pianism, but one in which his personality seemed expressed entirely through that proficiency. Musical content was kept in the foreground by facilitating the assertion of Kissin’s skill.
In music more formal than visceral, the results were pristine if somewhat distant. Franz Joseph Haydn’s E-flat major Sonata (Hob. XVI:49), for instance, was wholly devoted to a particular conception of classical-era sound: a detached, no-pedal touch, transparent and crystalline, impeccable control for its own sake. The consistency was impressive, but the rhetoric could be impassive. Contrasts were more pronounced in Beethoven’s Opus 111 Sonata, his last — a stinging muscularity in the opening movement, a preternaturally smooth nobility in the variations that follow — but with an emphasis on extremes of sound rather than dramatic character. Beethoven’s obsessiveness, in particular, took center stage, long stretches of parallel passagework and chains of trills rendered as exquisite stasis.