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.
If Kissin’s ideas about the music seemed mainly centered around technical possibilities, it helped that his technique was amazing. The second half’s music moved closer to an intersection of compositional inspiration and pianistic physicality, and breathtaking moments abounded. In four of Franz Schubert’s Impromptus — two each from the D. 935 and D. 899 sets — the music’s spirit was inseparable from the sheer elan with which Kissin coursed through scales and arpeggiation. Virtuosity and expressivity reached a kind of singularity in Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, in which the musical effect is the technical effect, and vice versa. Kissin’s blazing exactness made both score and performance a demonstration of pure, unadulterated pianism.
A generous crop of encores opened with a tender, rubato-lavish reading of Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” The rest, though, returned to dazzling athletics: Liszt’s F-minor Transcendental Etude and his transcription of Schubert’s “Die Forelle”; Chopin’s stormy D-minor Prelude, the last of the Op. 28 set; Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny” rondo. It was all high-voltage and hard-charging, even vehement. Assurance and insistence are not so far apart.