Evgeny Kissin Says Farewell to D.C. Until 2018

Evgeny Kissin (piano), Kennedy Center Concert Hall, October 28, 2015

Photo by Sheila Rock
Photo by Sheila Rock

Before the start of Evgeny Kissin’s recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Wednesday evening, Jenny Bilfield, Washington Performing Arts’s president and CEO, made a startling announcement: Kissin would soon be taking a “two-year sabbatical from performing.” Upon investigation, that statement turned out to be a bit of overstatement. Kissin, apparently, will mostly be confining his tour dates to Europe in 2016 and 2017 and make no appearances in the U.S. after May 2016. Still, this concert was the last chance for D.C. audiences, who have been spoiled by regular Kissin recitals in recent years, to hear the Russian virtuoso before 2018.

It will be a long wait, but last night’s performance will live long in the memory—both as an exemplar of his near peerless musicianship and as a reminder of his occasional frustrations as an artist.

Kissin opened the program with a supple, graceful account of Mozart’s C-major Sonata, K. 330, full of sparkling runs and limpid voicing. Kissin particularly seemed to savor the piece’s modulations and hushed minor-key episodes—the lengthening shadows that intrude upon Mozart’s sunny lyricism before giving way once again to the major key.

Kissin’s interpretation of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata was epic in every sense of the word: a marvel of sweeping power, sustained concentration, technical mastery, and artistic unity. It was a searing performance of near apocalyptic proportions, with volcanic eruptions, terrifying silences, and unrelenting, tragic intensity. A mid-concert standing ovation was, for once, richly deserved.

The three Brahms “Intermezzi,” Op. 117, brought Kissin’s most mannered playing of the evening. He offered dreamily introspective readings that stretched these pieces to their breaking point. Kissin deconstructed the music to its spare, component parts, with a halting quality that gave the intimate impression of a mind in the midst of discovery. It was, at times, a fascinating point of view, but slowness often gave way to stasis, disrupting the pieces’ lyrical and expressive flow.

The recital closed with a group of Spanish works that occasioned Kissin’s most unfussy, yet still impeccably refined, performances of the evening. Four pieces by Isaac Albéniz – “Granada,” “Cadiz,” “Córdoba,” and “Asturias” – were offered as miniature tone-poems and atmospheric studies in pianistic color and lyricism. And Kissin dispatched the virtuosic challenges of Joaquin Larregla’s “¡Viva Navarra!” with expected but still delightful ease.

Kissin offered three encores, only two of which I stayed for (details courtesy of Washington Performing Arts):

1. Granados – Goyescas, Mvt IV: “Quejas o la Maja y el Ruiseñor” (Complaints or the Maiden and the Nightingale)

2. Granados – Danzas espanolas, Op. 37, No. 5 “Andaluza”

3. Brahms – Hungarian Dance No. 1

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