You know how some pianists can leave you feeling like your presence is an intrusion, or an unwelcome distraction? Well not Evgeny Kissin. Yes, he performs with deep intensity and concentration, yet this never excludes. Despite limited direct communication with the audience, he draws you in. The beaming smiles when he takes a bow – and his multiple encores – let you know that, despite the concentration, he is having a great time, and we are part of that. Of course, in a filmed concert, overhead keyboard shots and close-ups help, but I have had exactly the same experience at live performances. Despite four encores following his streamed Salzburg Festival programme (including Chopin’s Scherzo no. 2 – no throwaway bonbons here), one sensed he could go on all night. Over one and three quarter hours playing is a feat of memory at the very least, but to maintain momentum, energy and concentration, taking a rapt audience with him all the way is something extraordinary.

Evgeny Kissin in the Großes Festspielhaus
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borelli

His opening Berg, with its liquid chromatic harmonies defying the nominal B minor tonality, was expressively taut. Kissin contrasted the stretched intervals of the opening with the more insistent triplet rhythms and Lisztian urgency, and gave weight and import to every note of the passionate climax.

Soviet critic of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others, Tikhon Khrennikov’s output doesn’t crop up often, and the brief pieces on offer here don’t exactly set the world alight. His Op.5 Dance is playfully skittering, contrasting with a darker, winding second idea, and Kissin delivered it with a deft touch. In the Op.2 set, Khrennikov frequently contrasts spiky, racing (dare I say Shostakovich-like) material with sombre use of the lower reaches of the keyboard. Despite these darker textures, Kissin brought out the melodic ideas, delivering the more mercurial material, particularly in the fifth piece, with precise articulation.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes had understated style, with precise point to the rhythms (if a tad heavily attacked in places) in the first, an expressively singing line in the second, and dancing energy in the third. There was scope for a little more swing in the first, and a more sensuous left-hand melody in the second, but the final flourish of the third was a joy.

Evgeny Kissin
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borelli

And then to Kissin’s Chopin. This section of his programme would have made for a generous recital in itself – a Nocturne, three Impromptus, the first Scherzo and the substantial “Heroic” Polonaise – not to mention the second Scherzo as his third encore. He could be warmly expressive, as in the B major Nocturne, even playful, as in the opening of the first Impromptu. Yet it was the intensity of his playing that captivated; the whirlwind of dark energy and thrashing chords in the Scherzo no. 1 and the ringing pedalling and virtuosic final section of the second Impromptu were breathtaking. He is perhaps not the freest Chopin interpreter, eschewing extensive rubato in the lullaby-like central section of the B minor Scherzo, for example, yet despite not being overly expansive, this had a delicate warmth of expression. And as for the Second Scherzo, the drama, energy and concentration here was totally captivating.

For encores, we were treated to a beautifully judged ‘Duetto’ from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, followed by Kissin’s own Dodecaphonic Tango, with its highly engaging (and challenging) wide leaps, jazzily insistent rhythm and spiky 12-tone tango melody. And then, to follow the Chopin, after all the dramatic intensity, he ended with a masterstroke, with the calm stillness of Debussy’s Clair de lune.


This performance was reviewed from the Salzburg Festival stream on Arte

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