Each season, The Cleveland Orchestra attracts a veritable who’s who of leading pianists as guest soloists. But one name has long been conspicuously absent: Evgeny Kissin, whose last local appearance was a 1997 performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto under Vladimir Ashkenazy. A quarter of a century later, Kissin returned, presenting a solo recital to an enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd at Severance Music Center. 

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Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede

The evening saw a commanding, arresting beginning in Bach’s mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor, given in a piano transcription by Carl Tausig. A fascinating contrast to the more frequently performed Busoni version and rather more overtly virtuosic, it proved a prime vehicle for Kissin’s wide range of expressive power. In the fugue, he achieved great clarity, enhanced by judicious pedaling that added weight and color without muddying the waters.

Almost a polar opposite was Mozart’s Adagio in B minor. Here, Kissin probed great depth out of the deceptively simple textures, and thoughtfully phrased the lyrical melody. It was a look inward, as intimate as any of the composer’s minor key slow movements. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 31 in A flat major made for a weighty conclusion to the first half. The opening radiated amber warmth, with deft voicing of the chords elucidating the melodic line. Gentle arabesques danced across the keyboard, and Kissin offered a decidedly subdued reading – peaceful, idyllic and with little temptation to inject unneeded drama. Less so for the fiery if brief Scherzo, and the third movement brought us to the realm of the sublime, something of a spiritual warm-up for the magisterial fugue that closed, masterfully played.

A Kissin recital would hardly be complete without Chopin, and the whole of the second half was devoted to the Polish composer with whom he has had such a long affinity. Seven carefully curated mazurkas were of an irresistible charm, displaying the pianist’s innate understanding of the mazurka rhythm in these singularly idiomatic performances. Elegantly articulated, and the minor key selections in particular were heightened by an ineffable wistfulness and quintessentially Chopinesque melancholy – perhaps none more so than the B minor work which concluded. The Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante was contrasted by the rippling legato of the opening movement and the vivacity of the polonaise, brilliant indeed – it’s never not a thrill to see Kissin play double octaves! A dazzling close, and the applause broke out even before the last notes were struck.

Kissin seemed genuinely moved at the fervent reception he received, and offered four encores – and fairly substantial works at that, from the same composers surveyed on the printed program. The Bach-Busoni transcription of the chorale-prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland was given a pensive account. A pearly performance of Mozart’s sparkling Rondo in D major, K485 followed, and then back to Chopin with a robust and muscular Heroic polonaise, and finally the touching Waltz in F minor from Op. 70. Let’s hope Kissin’s next Cleveland appearance doesn’t entail such a long wait!