Kissin at Carnegie Hall: The Tenth Anniversary Concert

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Kissin at Carnegie Hall: The Tenth Anniversary Concert
October 14, 2000

by Philip Anson / October 25, 2000
On the Aisle

Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin returned to Carnegie Hall on October 14, to mark the tenth anniversary of his momentous American debut there on Sept. 30, 1990. A decade ago, Kissin was a vastly promising prodigy. The intervening years have turned him into an international star, one of our few living piano legends, and arguably the hottest keyboard phenomenon since Horowitz. Kissin’s fame was achieved despite his stunning lack of public relations savvy. He avoids the media and is a notoriously reticent interviewee. He lives in splendid isolation with his mother, teacher, and siblings in fancy New York and London apartments. Not since Glenn Gould has a great pianist been so personally opaque.

The tenth anniversary Carnegie Hall concert was sold out months in advance. The stage was packed with the overflow crowd. As usual, Kissin’s stage mannerisms were eccentric — he rushed to the piano, bowed stiffly like a wind-up toy, sat down abruptly (no chair adjustment), flicked his cuffs back, and plunged into the keyboard without hesitation. At 29, Kissin is an adult, but he still looks half his age, standing thin, pale, and geeky in his black tie and tails. He has a vulnerable, Michael Jackson quality. You get the feeling that the keyboard is Kissin’s refuge from the menacing external world.

Despite his oddities, Kissin played like a god. His technique was brilliant, a miracle of speed and dexterity. In Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9 (1833-35), especially in the Davidsbündler movement, he conjured astoundingly rich colors and vibrant sonorities from the piano, producing carillon-like effects. In Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, his pedalling was clever and his fingerwork flawless. Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853) was executed with the breathtaking precision and confidence of a munitions expert defusing a bomb.

The encores (which were exactly the same throughout Kissin’s US tour) were Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s “Widmung,” Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, Grünfeld’s arrangement of tunes from Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus”, and Tango by Albeniz. They were all enjoyable dazzlers, played with plenty of wrong notes, for a change.

For all his ability, Kissin is the target of considerable criticism. Many listeners find that his performances leave no deep emotional impression. His current tour has elicited considerable sniping. The San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 26) praised him as “one of the towering young piano virtuosos of our day, an artist of formidable technical and interpretive resources” but complained of “bluntness, even crudity”, and ”thunderous banging” . The San Francisco Examiner (Sept. 25 ) noted “a combination of generalized intensity, interpretive ardor and an exceptional technique”, but concluded that Kissin was “still pre-mature”, lacking poetry and introspection. The New York Times (Oct. 17) called Kissin “a pianist of staggering technical brilliance and powerful musical instinct” but lamented that his spontaneity seemed calculated (and indeed, Kissin even glanced across the stage a split-second before the bouquet was carried in, to make sure it was on time).

The accusation of facility is an easy critique to make, since Kissin’s face is expressionless, his body almost immobile, and he doesn’t indulge in para-musical antics, swooning, or snorting. At the keyboard, he seems alive only from the shoulder down. Is this simply his technique, or the symptom of emotional paralysis?

We may never know, and it is rather rude to speculate about Kissin’s inner life, but until he makes some overt and uncalculated human gesture, he will probably be branded as cold and mechanical. Yet for some of us, his severely controlled genius remains uniquely fascinating and thrilling, like a breath of ozone on a smoggy day. He is the complementary opposite of Martha Argerich. Whereas the Dionysian Argerich often rambles seeking divine inspiration, the Apollonian Kissin relies on good taste, impeccable training, and his formidable chops. Either way, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments? [email protected]).

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