Evgeny Kissin has been part of the DNA of the Verbier Festival since its inception. At the age of 21, he played at the very first festival in 1994, and he has been one of its most frequent famous returners, so I guess you could say he’s in with the bricks.

Evgeny Kissin © Diane Deschenaux
Evgeny Kissin
© Diane Deschenaux

Back then, he was most famous for being a child prodigy, not unlike many of the young musicians who come to play at the Verbier Festival every summer. But, now that he’s in his forties, Kissin has left those days far behind him and has developed into an artist who sees hidden depths. Indeed, it’s almost as though he has consciously eschewed the showy world of pianistic fireworks, because this Beethoven recital was most remarkable for its inward sense of the music’s working, revealing Kissin the mature poet and the thoughtful architect.

Indeed, his understanding of the Pathétique and Tempest sonatas was so similar that he seemed to envision them as companion pieces, to the extent that made me wonder why he didn’t play them back-to-back. The Pathétique’s introduction was darkly serious, but still lyrical, even strangely warm at times, and when the main Allegro started he managed to find the poetry in the fever. However, his right hand still drew attention to how astonishingly fractured Beethoven’s melody is, reminding us that, back in 1798, this was already the music of the future. So, for that matter, was the Tempest sonata, whose first movement was characterised by the same sort of fever-dream, full of fragmented shapes and nervy progressions. Both sonatas’ slow movements had a lovely sense of cantabile with an undercurrent of threat, and both finales spiralled with an inexorable sense of momentum, though the Pathétique’s finale was as decisive as the Tempest’s was delicate.

That sense of architecture was every bit as palpable in the Eroica Variations. Kissin conceived them as a single unit, not as a bunch of episodes, but he structured them like a great sine wave, its peaks and troughs moving definitively towards the final fugue but representing the different characteristics of the variations as they did so. Indeed, when it arrived, the fugue was as remarkable for the delicacy of its runs as for the power of its structure.

Kissin has a reputation for power – I heard a conversation with his piano tuner saying that that’s the only thing he wants from an instrument! – but that definitely wasn’t the sense I got from this concert. Instead the power was held in balance alongside an understanding of the music’s inner workings and structural purpose. Every line of the music’s emotion is written on his face as he plays, but the emotion came out through his playing rather than his gestures, and that made his Waldstein the culmination of the programme in more ways than one.

The rapid-fire opening seemed to tremble under his hands, but it gave way to a gorgeous E major second subject which, for all of the developmental energy that followed, seemed to shine like a beacon as the movement’s still centre to which it kept returning. That developmental fission was so elemental that it almost threatened to break free of his grip at times, but when that eternally strange second movement arrived it groped its way tentatively towards a finale which seemed to develop a sense of momentum – life-force, almost – all of its own. The ending was both triumphant and transcendent, so much so that I almost wished he hadn't trotted out three encores afterwards.

Still, it seems churlish to complain about more Beethoven when what was on offer was so great. Kissin the mature artist was a joy to witness, and he made this all-Beethoven programme cohere with a sense of narrative that few, I suspect, could match.


Simon's press trip to Verbier was funded by Premier Comms

****1