It’s over 20 years since I last saw Evgeny Kissin live. That concert, the first solo piano recital in the history of the BBC Proms, was legendary for all sorts of reasons – coruscating performances of works by Haydn, Liszt and Chopin and no less than seven encores to a record-breaking audience (over 6000). In the course of his career, he has been criticized by some for his rather cool manner and smooth perfectionism, but there is no doubting his consistent dedication to his art and artistry. Listen to his recording of Chopin’s Berceuse and you hear refinement in every pearlescent note and multi-hued filigree passage: Kissin has musical intellect and, more importantly, he has soul.

Evgeny Kissin © Felix Broede
Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede

No longer the shock-haired Wunderkind, he is now a mature artist in his mid-40s; he has written a slim volume of thoughtful memoirs and has married his childhood sweetheart. He’s still got the phenomenal technique, but his stage presence is noticeably more relaxed (much smiling during his curtain calls). Yet his style and demeanour hark back to an earlier era, including the way he dresses (evening suit, black tie, even a cummerbund – a rarity at concerts these days): audiences really love this because it reminds them of the huge sense of occasion a concert by a pianist of this calibre creates and preserves the mystique of the virtuoso performer.

The Barbican website described him as a “lion” of the keyboard, The Economist as the “greatest living pianist”. Both statements are, of course, subjective... while also being true. He is “great”, in the sense of possessing an ineffable multi-faceted talent which makes the reviewer’s job so hard, for how can one truly describe what he does?

When this lion enters the ring, there is no circus, no showy piano pyrotechnics nor gesture for the sake of gesture. What you get with Kissin is pure music with the sense that the performer is secondary to the music yet also fully present.

The programme gave full rein to Kissin’s magisterial powers, not just his technique but his musical intelligence too. He made the infamously difficult opening of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier – a rapid leap of an octave and a half taken in the left hand alone  – look easy (and indeed the entire programme!) and launched into the first movement with a heroic commitment wrought in myriad sound. This work is so pianistic, its nickname a constant reminder that it must be played on a piano (and Beethoven was alert to rapid developments in piano design at the start of the 19th century: he knew a new instrument could produce the effects he demands in his score), yet also rich in orchestral textures and voicings, all revealed so clearly, so musically by Kissin. His pianistic attack may be direct, but his fortissimos never compromise on quality of sound, and his edges are smoothly honed. Aside from all of this, it was his pacing and natural rubato which captivated: a clear through-narrative gave this large-scale sonata a fantasy-like character, yet with a rigorous sense of the work’s overall architecture, even in the Adagio sostentuto, where time was suspended for a movement played with an intense concentration and almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, yet managed, in places, with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality, met by a cheering audience at its close.

The second half was all Rachmaninov Preludes, a selection from Opp.23 and 32, works with which Kissin is fully at ease, so much so that he sculpts sound, grand gestures deftly chiseled, delicate motifs etched in filigree touch and a gentle haze of sound. He commits body and soul to the music, portraying the music’s emotional depth, its yearning and nostalgia, without a hint of false sentiment or surface artifice. 

Four encores afforded extra pleasure and more pianistic marvels – a crepuscular etude by Scriabin (Op.2, no. 1), Kissin’s very own Toccata (proof that he could have been an excellent jazz pianist as well!), another favourite Rachmaninov Prelude (in C sharp minor Op.3 no. 2), played with as much energy as if he was opening the concert, and Tchaikovsky’s Méditation. He probably would have played more, such was his eagerness to return to the piano at each curtain call, but regretfully many of us had last trains to catch.