A lot of Beethoven already, and it’s only February – but this may well turn out to be a highlight of the year. Evgeny Kissin’s contribution to Beethoven 250 at the Barbican was a marathon of three of the big sonatas, with the Eroica Variations, followed by no fewer than four encores.

Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede

Kissin took no prisoners – definitely not Beethoven for the fainthearted, yet performances full of urgent energy and evident joy in the music. We’re in early- to mid-period Beethoven, Heiligenstadt crisis notwithstanding, and where some others get bogged down in weighty profundity, Kissin wasted no time in over-indulgence. Yet apart from the odd movement when as a listener you wanted to momentarily draw breath, nothing felt rushed. 

He launched straight into the Pathétique – onto stage, sit down and away we go. The slow introduction had weight, but was not laborious, and the Allegro went at a healthy lick. It is a testament to Kissin’s unquestionably phenomenal technical prowess that nothing ever disrupted the momentum here – there was no hint of rhythmic accommodation for the hand-crossings and rapid scale passages. The Adagio came after hardly a break, and here Kissing showed us a rich, singing tone. And despite his strength and weight elsewhere, the densely double textured return of the theme towards the end of this movement did not feel thick or stodgy as it can sometimes under heavier hands.

The Eroica Variations stand up in terms of stature alongside the sonatas, and Kissin carried us through their journey with a great sense of the overall architecture, from the build-up from raw bass line, parts added one by one, to the first statement of the earworm theme (still in my head the day after), right through the 15 variations, the sprightly fugue and the recall of the theme and initial variations. Kissin enjoyed the percussive strikes of the theme, as well as Beethoven’s use of the full extent of the keyboard, hands often rushing in contrary motion from the extremes to the middle and out again.

The Tempest was impatient and full of breathless energy, appropriate for most of the first movement, but this was the one place I would have liked a little more space. There was no daylight between pauses in the opening movement, and the Adagio, whilst definitely needing forward momentum into the finale, could have taken a little more space. Yet his placing of every interjection here was careful without being mannered, and the Allegretto had a quiet, understated urgency.

The Waldstein was uncluttered and surprisingly smooth, with the right hand octave runs in the opening movement neither hammered nor pecked at. The chorale-like second subject was a little weighty, with accents breaking the line, but Kissin produced rich baritonal warmth in the Adagio molto. The virtuosic finale seemed effortless, full of contrasts, so that final return of the melody before the coda felt majestic here.

Once into his encores, Kissin was on a roll here, and could have gone on all night. The Bagatelles were playful, with a real delicacy to the scales in Op.126 no.6. Kissin enjoyed the darker central section of Op.33 no. 5, as well as its sudden surprise stop and repetition before its rippling finish. We were treated to another set of variations, the Op.76 set, with its rustic theme, the variations ranging from the playful to lyrical and a galloping romp. The final Écossaises were delicately poised, a dance of pure fun to finish.