It isn’t often that one finds the stage at Symphony Center filled to the brim with overflow seating, but such is par for the course at a Evgeny Kissin recital. All the more so given that this was right on the heels of his powerhouse performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the CSO last month, as well as his recently announced sabbatical – he isn’t expected to return to Chicago until 2018.

Evgeny Kissin © Felix Broede | EMI
Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede | EMI
The recital began with Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K330. While much of Kissin’s reputation rests on the Romantic fingerbusters, this was a study in classical refinement and economy.  The pearly first theme of the opening movement positively shimmered, and Kissin brought a profound lyricism to the Andante movement, particularly in the minor key middle section. Kissin’s finely judged use of the damper pedal added appropriate weight in the finale, one of Mozart’s most joyous.

At the polar opposite of the human psyche is Beethoven’s great Appassionata. This was nothing short of a benchmark performance. Starting almost inaudibly with the descending F minor triad, Kissin’s dynamic contrast was astounding, not the least because of his total control even at the extremities. The violent outbursts recall the despair Beethoven expressed in his Heiligenstadt Testament of the previous year. The movement builds to massive architectonic climaxes before ending as quietly as it began, in an unsettling state of unease.

The second movement, in variations, provided some brief respite, particularly in the heart-melting beauty of the arpeggiated variation, and the arabesques of the following. The unrelenting tumult of the last movement abruptly broke the calm. When you heard the speed at which he played the eighth notes in the concluding presto section, you knew you were in for a wild ride to the end. Kissin delivered the pathos-laden finale with intense drama and dark passion, bringing the audience – already at the edge of their seat – to their feet.

After the two sonatas, the second half was a bit more of a smorgasbord, beginning with Brahms’ autumnal Intermezzos, Op.117. The sheer beauty of Kissin’s tone was especially felt in the third intermezzo, the long, drawn-out melodies never lost in the murky depths of Brahms’ writing. Following this hearty dosage of the Austro-German masters, Kissin took a sudden – and most welcome – detour to Spain. Four pieces of Albéniz formed a coherent suite in their own right – three selections from the Suite Española no. 1, Op.47, and one from Cantos de España, Op.232.

Guitar-like strumming in the right hand accompanies the gentle melody of Granada, while Cádiz was highlighted by a playful folksong. The stately chordal procession of Córdoba was impeccably voiced, and Asturias was the highlight, in this mesmerizing evocation of the fire and passion of Spain. Not wanting to break the Spanish atmosphere, Kissin leapt directly into the printed program’s final selection, Larregla’s ¡Viva Navarra! Clearly designed to be a crowd-pleaser, this was played with peerless virtuosity and panache through the final coda, calculated for maximum effect in its whirlwind of interlocking octaves.

We remained on the Iberian Peninsula for the first two encores – both by Granados: an impressionistic Quejas, o La Maja y el ruiseñor from Goyescas, and a jaunty Andaluza from the Danzas españolas. Kissin bowed out with a passionate account of Brahms’ brooding Hungarian Dance no. 1. 2018 can’t come soon enough.