Let me first describe the sound of the applause: taut, front-heavy, explosive. This was before Evgeny Kissin played his first note at Symphony Hall this past Sunday. It was a packed house, with an audience that spilled out of the choir loft and onto several rows of chairs wrapped around the piano. And as he finished – during his fourth encore, a prelude by Chopin – a middle-aged couple stood by the door on stage, holding hands, listening intently, needing to leave, not wanting to go.

Evgeny Kissin © Sasha Gusov
Evgeny Kissin
© Sasha Gusov

Of course, much of this is star status. But Kissin is the real deal. Not with everything – and it can be surprising to discover where he falters, namely, with the strong rhythmic backbone usually emblematic of the modern Russian virtuoso. Kissin, rather, is Viennese. At the piano he is like a surfer trying to stay above water, ducking in here, pawing there. His light touch is his greatest strength, and it was in the frothier parts of Schubert’s Impromptus that he showed what he can really do, and what he will be remembered for. His legendary technique was at its most effective when counterbalanced by a musical simplicity and elegance, such as when he makes going up and down the full compass of the keyboard in two seconds seem not effortful but effervescent.

As a virtuoso, he is Horowitzian in his careful handling of stage presence. His curious formality before and after playing, which could be summarized in an extremely minimal list – tuxedo jacket button, stiff little bow, curt swish to face the choir, stiff little bow, measured walk – makes the crowd rave all the more as it pleads for yet another encore. And it belies his playfulness, even childishness, in the Romantic repertoire he cut his teeth on. There is still something of the twelve-year-old showing off when he plays Liszt today at 41.

The first half paired a late Haydn sonata in E flat major with Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, among the most ambitious works a pianist can put on a program. The Haydn was clearly treated as a warm-up piece (it needn’t be – though it’s slight, the second movement is incredibly mature and incredibly beautiful, and the whole thing has a through-line if one is willing to follow it). It was spiky, a little distracted, with each of its expressive rests cut a little short, as if Kissin wasn’t interested in hearing them through (or didn’t think that we would be interested in waiting).

The weaknesses of his Haydn made it easier for me to name my problems with his Beethoven, in particular the second movement, a theme and variations that passes in one expansive breath. Kissin tends not to sustain his legato lines from within, but pushes them around from outside, and their peaks and valleys are simply too exaggerated for the building of sustained moments – which is what the last movement of Op. 111 is all about. Yet this isn’t always the case. There were also passages, typically quieter ones, when his rhythmic license allowed him to slow a texture way down, to forget the hectic spirals that chew through the movement, and just listen to a dissonance. His Op. 111 is idiosyncratic but personal, more alive in the spacious moments, in the theatre of the beginning and the soft light of the Arietta.

But Kissin ended with Liszt’s twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody in C sharp minor, for which I would have forgiven nearly everything that happened before. He is the opposite of a pianist like Lang Lang, who is not so much a virtuoso as a communicator: like a conductor, his gestures guide your hearing (even when the notes are not all there). A virtuoso of Horowitz’s mold, however, is as still and calm as someone waiting on the phone. Where, then, do these notes come from? That is the mystery, and the power. Kissin’s mystery sustained him through twelve curtain calls – which, by the way, is far from the most he’s ever received.