Shep nachas. It's one of those great Yiddish expressions used to describe pleasure one gets from the achievements of others, demonstratively familial, derived by relatives from kin. Beyond lineal ties that bind, the Carnegie Hall audience at a recent concert of Jewish composers and Yiddish poets shepped nachas from Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin.

Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall © Steve J. Sherman
Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J. Sherman

As master of ceremonies and solo pianist, Kissin interspersed poems by the classic Yiddish writer, Yitzhak Leybush Peretz, with solo piano works by lesser-known Jewish composers such as Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik and Alexander Krein. The concert, under Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season, is part of the “Great Artists I” series (among classical luminaries such as Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma), and was the penultimate of five concerts in the "Perspectives: Evgeny Kissin" series.

Praised for his exemplary, highly-fluent interpretations of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, among Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt evergreens, Kissin’s virtuoso status affords him the luxury of dissecting and promoting obscure works, such as the ones sourced through his extensive Yiddish studies at New York City-based institutions where the Moscow-born, 44-year-old has been living since the Nineties.

Kissin initially learned Yiddish as a child from his maternal grandparents, followed by intense Yiddish studies to cultivate fluency. On his journey to master the niche, ancient language of Askhenazi Jews, he’s collaborated with Pro Musica Hebraica, a group founded by Charles Krauthammer and his wife, which stages Jewish music by lesser-known composers. In addition to the Carnegie Hall concert, the group supported Kissin’s acclaimed, 2014 Jewish music and poetry concert at The Kennedy Center.

At Carnegie Hall, in a dark suit and white dress shirt, Kissin took the spotlight for Peretz’s late 19th century poems on Jewish folk traditions. Reciting from memory into a microphone, he punctuated verse with his left hand on binary themes such as life vs. death, nature vs. grace and good vs. evil, tinged in black humor and irony.

Yiddish, a combination of Hebrew and medieval German with a unique grammatical structure and alphabet based on Hebrew, was lingua franca of 20th century American-Jewish immigrants, but cultural assimilation over the past century has tempted extinction, and like many things facing obsolescence, there’s been a Yiddish renaissance to reconnect younger generations to the language of their ancestors.  

Credit to popular icons, Yiddish culture has well-known theatrical and musical legacy – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yentl); Sholem Aleichem (Fiddler on the Roof); theater star Boris Thomashefsky and the Borscht Belt heirs; and more recently, the Coen Brothers’ 2009 unforgettable A Serious Man opening vignette.

Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall © Steve J. Sherman
Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J. Sherman
It’s a highly-expressive language – one word can embrace an entire character study or a universal, human condition – and it can be loaded with sentimentality and nostalgia, intrinsic to a language of faded witnesses and lost legacies. But Kissin’s interpretations lacked sentimentality and schmaltz. In a sonorous, deep baritone with faint, endearing Russian accents, dark and rich chanting was swiftly paced – at times incantations sounded like remote threats.

In “A mol” (“Once”), he narrated the story of a man visited by Death as he contemplated life. Here, Kissin growled as he slipped into a menacing personification of Death. “Ikh bin der toyt!” (“I am Death!”), he threatened, before responding as the protagonist in a modulated voice, “How cold are your hands, Death. How frosty your breath is–.”

For the encore, he recited a self-penned Yiddish poem from his personal collection, “Ani Mayim” (“Credo”), an existential commentary on Abraham’s teachings to one of his sons. “Why aren’t you like the others?” Abraham asked one of his sons, to which he responded, “If I am like the others, who will be like me?”

As piano soloist, Kissin opened with the most well-known of the three works, the three-movement Piano Sonata Op.40 by Bloch, composed in 1935. As a well-tempered, liberal journey delineated by fluidity, Kissin balanced intelligence with Bloch’s colorful syncopations. Fingerwork was decisive and self-assured, with barely a pause between movements. Masterful pedal work smudged lower grumbles over annunciated high octaves.

The Bartok-influenced Piano Sonata no. 2 by Veprik from 1924 was marked by an expressive, organic fluidity over a direct, persistent core. Assured fingering tidied-up the wandering work with pragmatism. Krein’s 1928 Suite dansée, influenced by Scriabin, was a sunny, uplifting work that echoed Jewish folk themes through broken dissonance and light pedal work. A generous encore by Mikhail "Moshe" Milner, Farn opsheyd (“Before Separating”), ended the concert with a similarly-sourced Scriabin sentiment.

No shtick, just solid musicianship.

***11