Evgeny Kissin seems to perpetually astonish the older generation with his age: can he really be 42, with his awkward, boyish stage persona, tousleable crop of hair and the label “child prodigy” forever hanging, albatross-like, around his neck? For me, of a younger generation, it’s his youth that’s tough to take in. He has been legendary for as long as I can remember, and yet somehow he is only now at an age when many artists approach their peak. This only adds to the fascination, of course, and expectations from me as well as from the older audience members were sky-high for this rendition of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas. They were partially fulfilled, but not more.

Evgeny Kissin © Sheila Rock
Evgeny Kissin
© Sheila Rock

In fact, the concert’s highlight proved to be the second half, when Tilson Thomas and the orchestra together forged an exemplary Prokofiev 5 – and this was a performance characterised by many of the virtues the concerto had lacked. While the Prokofiev was superbly structured and seemed to have been carefully planned, the Tchaikovsky concerto had an unbecoming spontaneity to it, and little real sense of engagement between soloist and orchestra.

Kissin’s technique needs no introduction. It is thrilling to watch him play, and the toughest sections flow with a naturalness that is deeply special. If his playing seems indulgent at times, it is worth the indulgence. But at times here, it was like he was in a different place to the orchestra, not responding to them with any particular sensitivity – and in this of all concertos, which the piano begins in accompanist mode while the strings deliver the famous D flat major melody, a sense of exchange between the parties is crucial. During the more soloistic passages, Tilson Thomas seemed just a fraction more harassed than he usually does on the podium, turning right round to face Kissin as if he was unsure exactly what was going to happen. There’s plenty to be said for bringing freshness and imagination to performance, of course, but the surprises on offer here didn’t always seem welcome. Still, moments of great beauty persisted, and occasionally brilliant turns of phrase – as many of which were to be found in the encore, a Scriabin étude – there remained ample proof of just what a special player Kissin is.

The evening’s true hero, though, was Michael Tilson Thomas, whose gift for careful pacing of long works made for a thrilling reading of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony which gained in momentum and power as it went on. Though perhaps a sterner, more granitic ode to the human spirit (as Prokofiev called it) than one might expect, its forceful, joyous conclusion is something to marvel at, and when it’s done right it seems to acknowledge, bring together and celebrate all the trials and tribulations of the preceding 45 minutes. The generally slow tempi of this performance gave it a deep sense of heft, as did some strong playing from the much-employed lower-pitched instruments in the orchestra – the cellos were acknowledged at the end with their own bow.

Though the first and third movements had much to commend them, it was the faster second and fourth that sounded most remarkable here – the scurrilous second was kept on a tight leash which made the overall effect much greater, and allowed listeners a fraction longer to savour the excellent orchestral playing as well. The finale felt like a joyride, with the orchestra’s virtuosity shining brightly throughout.

Music of such grand proportions as this – and indeed the Tchaikovsky – was a world away from the jolly opener we had heard. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dubinushka has an intriguing political history – it’s an arrangement of a folk song popular with Russian revolutionaries in the early 20th century – but today in concert it sounds merely pleasant and bouncy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – in fact, it proved a welcome counterbalance to the rest of this attractive but unbouncy programme.