Attending an Evgeny Kissin recital can be like riding in an expensive luxury car. It is easy to be carried along by such opulent refinement and effortless power. Occasionally, however, one might wish for more visceral immediacy or greater variety of response.
In the first half of Kissin’s Sunday Celebrity Series recital in Symphony Hall, the pianist demonstrated the last degree of technical finish in a silver-toned performance of Schubert’s Sonata in D Major, D. 850. But I couldn’t help feeling that the lyrical heart of this magnificent music lacked a certain warmth.
D. 850 doesn’t have the brand-name recognition of Schubert’s final three piano sonatas, but it is a work of similar stature, with four expansive movements by turns majestic and intimate.
In the opening Allegro vivace, Kissin paid careful attention to the martial figure that ties the movement together; the result was a strong sense of architectural stability.
Less successful was the rapturous Con moto, one of Schubert’s great slow movements. “Con moto” means “with motion,” yet Kissin preferred an affected largo. Melodies emerged with floating perfection, yet the music dawdled preciously when it most needed forward impetus.
If the scherzo, too, showed some propensity for preciousness, the finale offered a freshness and delicacy that showed its cheeky lyricism to best advantage. Kissin’s phrasing was a miracle of weightless grace.
The second half presented a Scriabin sampler. Why Schubert and Scriabin? The logic eluded me; these two composers don’t really speak the same language.
In any event, Kissin is a magnificent Scriabin player. The Chopinate Second Sonata moved from a slightly reticent introduction to climaxes of thrillingly liquid power and lyricism of limpid intensity; in Scriabin’s lovely filigree effects, where a melodic line seems to be played by a third hand, Kissin’s molten cantabile was exquisitely managed.
A handful of the Opus 8 Études demonstrated Kissin’s capacity to shift on a dime from the lyrical to the explosive. Standouts were No. 5 in E Major and No. 9 in G-sharp minor, with octave technique of extraordinary suppleness. The famous final étude, No. 12 in D-sharp minor, roared to a full-throttle climax.
This was, finally, a robust and healthy Scriabin; if Kissin smoothed out the composer’s feverish nervousness, it seemed a small price to pay for such sumptuous playing.
Kissin responded to repeated ovations with three encores: the Bach-Kempff Siciliana, another Scriabin étude (Op. 42, No. 5), and the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53.