Evgeny Kissin is more than a collection of bones and flesh and crazy hair: he is a sensation. Every May for the past several years, the pianist has performed a recital on the Perelman stage at Carnegie Hall, and every year the tickets have sold out by mid-October, seven or eight months in advance. These recitals are the pinnacle of any concert-goer’s season. They are the Super Bowl of classical music, or the release of a new Harry Potter book, or Easter Sunday, when suddenly church congregations surge to twice their usual attendance. I had never seen Carnegie Hall brimming with so many people and such collective anticipation until this past Friday night before Mr Kissin took the stage. I didn’t spot a single empty seat, and there were even rows of audience members in stage seating, only a few feet from the Steinway Mr Kissin was about to play.

Evgeny Kissin © Sheila Rock
Evgeny Kissin
© Sheila Rock

The instrument became much more than an assemblage of wood and ivory beneath Mr Kissin’s fingers. From his first note, it was evident that, despite his humble demeanor, Mr Kissin is able to sell out entire concert halls year after year because he is truly an impossibility, a genius. He is one of a handful of performers since Horowitz to possess the rare but recognizable gift of Great Pianism – and at 41 years old, he will only improve from here. Mr Kissin’s presence at the piano is neither showy nor intellectual but instead unassuming, which renders his intuitive, authoritative playing all the more incredible. He doesn’t have to think; he doesn’t need to try. The piano becomes an extension of himself, and the music sounds as if he himself had composed it.

Of course he hadn’t actually composed any of the works he played on Friday night, each of which seemed to be a warm-up for the next. He started with pure Viennese Classicism: Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E flat major. Mr Kissin transitioned, with captivating instinct, from the playful phrases of the opening movement to the almost soporific second, and then to the effervescent finale. The lightness of this sonata was immediately countered by the stormy opening to Beethoven’s final sonata. The Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, composed three decades after the Haydn, here ran fluid from the Kissin-Steinway non-human-non-piano, spilling across the stage and parquet and flowing upwards to douse the balcony and the ceiling. The music lurched, but Mr Kissin did not. Though the two movements – the blustering Maestoso and the Arietta, serene and poetic – could not be more different, they were here presented as one unit of beauty, an awe-inspiring understanding of Beethoven.

These two classical sonatas, however well-communicated, were half-forgotten by the end of the evening. After intermission, Mr Kissin dived into four Schubert Impromptus: F minor and B flat major of D.935, and G flat major and A flat major from D.899. This was one of the few half-hours of music I have experienced that transcends words. Mr Kissin did not seem aware of us and we were similarly unaware of everything aside from this miraculous music. Throughout the ethereal variations and fluctuations, I existed in a crepuscular, half-waking state, occasionally reminding myself to breathe.

The deluge of Liszt that followed was as unbelievable as a dream: the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 in C sharp minor, plus the Transcendental Etude no. 10 in F minor and a transcription of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as two of the three encores. Mr Kissin’s touch, previously so light, was here explosive, irradiating the fantastical gypsy melodies that so inspired Liszt. After shifting through the Viennese composers, Mr Kissin became a star, embodying the blazing charm and brilliance of the Hungarian composer and pianist. The other encore, a transcription of a Gluck melody from Orfeo ed Euridice, was sublime, and allowed our blood pressures to calm down a bit.

This was not a “flawless” performance, but it didn’t matter. Mr Kissin’s finger slid onto a jarring wrong note during the third Schubert impromptu he performed, and on a couple of other occasions the playing slipped into inexactitude. He also graced us with one fewer encore than in his recent recital of the same program in Chicago (reviewed here), despite the fact that the audience had no intentions of leaving until we had gotten our fill. (One audience member even handed him a teddy bear, which looked right at home in the arms of the boyish pianist.) But these imperfections seem so insignificant with the realization that this night, and this music, will be remembered as perfect, having more than surpassed the frenzied expectation.