Evgeny Kissin, Beethoven piano sonatas at the Barbican Hall review ***

Evgeny Kissin

Barbican Hall, 6th February 2020

Ludwig van Beethoven

  1. Piano Sonata No 8, Op 13 Pathétique
  2. 15 Variations and a Fugue, Op 35
  3. Piano Sonata No 17, Op 31 No 2 Tempest
  4. Piano Sonata No 21, Op 53 Waldstein
  5. Encore: various Bagatelles Op 126, Op 33, Variations Op 76 and Ecossaise WoO 86

A quick pat-down of the still unruly barnet, bounce up the steps and stride purposely across the stage to the single Steinway piano. Quick bow. No score obvs. Then straight into the sombre beauty of the Pathetique’s Grave introduction, before the dotty rush of the ensuing Allegro, the gorgeous Adagio chorale and then the closing Rondo repeats. Then the Eroica Variations which take that famous opening questioning, slightly arch, melody from the finale of the Third Symphony, and present a half hour of extraordinary variations (15) around it with closing fugue. The highlight for me. The Tempest, with uncertainty the key to the opening’s barrage of arpeggios and trills, the siren song of the Adagio and then the desperate, incessant waves of the closing Allegretto. Finally the Waldstein with the rolling exploration of the mysterious Allegro, the short, equally weird Adagio which never gets going before jumping into the closing Rondo which builds and builds and builds, a symphony dressed up as a sonata. Then more, and more, and more, encores with the Op 76 Variations in D major the standout.

He shuffled off in between, took the tumultuous applause with a few short bows, might have smiled a bit, but otherwise this was another day in the office for Evgeny Kissin. Except that his office is unlike yours. Or any one else’s for that matter. Including those rarefied few engaged in the same profession as him. We have come a long way from the child prodigy, wunderkind, genius, how the f*ck does he do that years, he’s now 47, but to see and hear the Russian-Brit-Israeli maestro is still a fascinating experience. He can do anything he wants with a piano and a score and he makes it look easy. But, as in previous encounters, I can find this a bit numbing. And, in Beethoven especially, in these perfect, middle-ish, sonatas, I think he still adds too much. I want the all of Beethoven’s invention, surprise, technique, but I want to get inside his patterns and structure. It is almost as if, in the cat and mouse of perfect performance, the Kissin cat is just too smart for the Beethoven mouse. Just too good. Mind you I suspect LvB, even in his head, may not of imagined quite what dynamics the modern piano machine can conjure up.

Weird thing to say I know. He is not mannered. Or indulgent. Textures are full but not weighty. He doesn’t add, or subtract. Tempi are overall right. It’s just there is just a little too much polish to the detail. The architecture and line is intact, but I just get overwhelmed by technique. The notes are perfect, the space between them less so.

Still no question I’ll be here next year assuming the programme is even moderately appealing, (not a given with his Romantic leanings), and that science and cooperation have vanquished politics and blame. To hear piano playing of this technical brilliance even if it doesn’t quite convince at the punch in the gut level is still one of life’s great privileges.