When Evgeny Kissin first walked on stage at the Barbican Centre, his gentle smile and humble demeanor seemed ill equipped for the exuberance of Liszt’s piano works. But from the moment notes first spilled out from the piano, Kissin had the audience transfixed.

© FBroede
© FBroede

Beginning with the tranquil, nocturne-like Ricordanza, Kissin captured Liszt’s grandiose style with a contained intensity, truly opening up during the beautiful, cantabile melodies reminiscent of Chopin.

Then the audience waited with baited breath as Kissin prepared for Piano Sonata in B minor, Liszt’s pinnacle achievement for piano. Elaborate, complicated and virtuosic, Kissin successfully ushered out all of Liszt’s various melodic themes without compromising the instrumental virtuosity inherent in this piece. From loud, crashing chords to racing strings of notes, quiet, intimate chromaticism to wild, double octaves, Kissin nailed it all with scintillating clarity.

Moving onto some of Liszt’s symphonic poems, Kissin displayed advanced musical fluency by encapsulating a range of characters and images in the latter half of his performance. In Funérailles, a piece Liszt composed to commemorate those who died in a failed Hungarian uprising in 1849, chromatic clusters mixed with a murky pedal created a storm of sounds in the lower register of the piano; accompanied by march-like rhythms in the upper registers, the music created a distinct image of an uprising, a mob of protestors rallying to meet their cause. Similarly, Kissin perfected the image of a gondola on the Venetian canals with Liszt’s undulating rhythms in Gondoliera. Easily transitioning from theme to theme, Kissin then mastered the darkly pessimistic nature of the gondolier in Canzone, only to finish up with a feverish performance of Tarantella, a boisterous keyboard piece.

Graceful and humble in between performances—even after two encores!—Kissin truly let himself go in a whirlwind of emotion, without ever losing the masterful technique Liszt’s music commands.