Evgeny Kissin’s interpretation of nine works by Chopin was unexpectedly serene during his end-of-the-year Carnegie Hall recital, which was so sold out that, once again, the stage was crowded with a surplus of audience members in stage seating. Despite an underwhelming first half of the concert, Mr Kissin managed to remind the audience of his mastery of the piano after the intermission with this string of nocturnes and mazurkas followed by a lightning fast Hungarian Rhapsody by Chopin’s ‘frenemy’ Franz Liszt. It was during this second half of the concert that concert-goers were rewarded with Mr Kissin’s inimitable technique, a full range in sounds filling the hall, and of course that element of unexpectedness that draws such large crowds year after year.

Evgeny Kissin © Felix Broede | EMI
Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede | EMI

Mr Kissin’s impressive touch was on full display during his first set of Chopin pieces: Nocturne in B flat minor, Op.9 no. 1, Nocturne in B major, Op.9 no. 3, and Nocturne in C minor, Op.48 no. 1. Throughout all three nocturnes, Mr Kissin opted for delicacy and sensitivity where others might have emphasized drama or showiness, particularly during the C minor Nocturne. The low octaves throughout the first section were here a smooth and carefully-weighted undertow, never heavy or foreboding, and the rolled chords of the second section were sublimely round and polished. During the final section, marked agitato and double the speed of the preceding, Mr Kissin swept us away with the elegant strings of triplets and single-note melody wandering into thin air before the final chords.

The six mazurkas that followed, all in a breathless string, were less gripping, though still for the most part swirling with pensivity and ambiguity. One brief display of pianistic gymnastics, sometimes frolicking but usually on the melancholy side as five of the six were in minor keys. The Liszt that followed – the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 15 in A minor, “Rákóczi March” – was almost inhuman in its velocity and virtuosity. Just as Chopin incorporated the sounds of Poland into his music, and especially the mazurkas, the Hungarian Liszt suffused his works with the sounds of his homeland, particularly those of the gypsy bands. The piece ranges in mood from marchlike to manic, and Mr Kissin was adept at conveying these unceremonious shifts, not to mention hurtling through the difficult notes themselves with composure.

The first half of the concert, by contrast, was slightly less jaw-dropping. Mr Kissin began the evening with a rendition of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata that ranged in tone from muddled to mechanical. The first movement in particular featured consistently imprecise arpeggi and lumbering passages that felt as if he were thinking too much about the notes or not enough. Nonetheless, however tiresome the first and second movements were, the third movement was crisp and clear, with buttery soft dynamics, flawless phrasing, and a breakneck race through the final chords, the final cadence thundering down with all confidence renewed.

The Beethoven was followed by Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 4 in C minor, which felt likewise disjointed at times. The first movement’s recurring staccato motifs felt somewhat disjointed among Mr Kissin’s uncommonly smooth and placid tempi as if these were interruptions, like not-quite-stifled hiccups, rather than parts of the music. Once again, though, Mr Kissin found his stride during the later movements, as the sonata’s second and third movements came across as effortlessly energetic. Throughout the mysterious meandering melodies up until the slam-bang ending, Mr Kissin regained his poise and momentum, easily locating the assurance that probably should have been there all along, given the stage seating and whatnot.

Of course, the printed program is really only half the story, and Mr Kissin graced the audience with three encores which were expected rather than demanded. In an apt continuation of his concert program, he played a sensitive, subtle Chopin waltz followed by a searingly virtuosic Liszt étude (“La Chasse”, after Paganini) and closed with Prokofiev’s March from The Love for Three Oranges, a march so nimble and buoyant in its preposterous accelerations that it chased any dissatisfactions right out of our minds.