Programmatic music has had a bit of a hard time of it. Ever since nineteenth-century musicologists asserted the supremacy of absolute music – music that referred to, and meant, nothing but itself – any music that attempts to describe, evoke or emulate things extra-musical has been considered by aesthetes to be of secondary value. Of course, most people who’ve heard Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Richard Strauss’ numerous tone poems know this to be a load of tosh; anyone who was at Evgeny Kissin’s recital at the Barbican and witnessed his performance of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no. 2 in G sharp minor can offer confirmation. Programmatic it might be, but this music – at the hands of this pianist – is second to none.

© FBroede
© FBroede
Scriabin wanted this music to evoke various types of night-light (starlight, moonlight) playing on the surface of the sea in various states of agitation. There was certainly something starlit about Kissin’s playing at the start of the Andante movement which began the second half of the concert: a lightness of touch in the glimmering, warm, unexpected harmonic twists of the tentative opening phrases; a dazzling twinkling of sound in the sparkling rhythmic passages that run up and down the length of the keyboard in counterpoint to the ensuing luscious melodic material. Scriabin’s idiosyncratic pianistic voice, with its revelatory harmonic treatment and extravagantly contrasting textures, is perfectly represented in this enchanting movement, and Kissin lovingly buffed these special features of the writing and made them shine.

A feature of his playing throughout the concert was the uncannily brilliant weighting of the individual parts. This is vitally important when performing Scriabin’s music, which often has a huge amount going on, with individual lines constantly at risk of drowning in the mass of notes that rise and fall like waves. Such is certainly the case in the Sonata’s second and final movement, a writhing Presto representing, according to the composer, ‘the stormy agitation of the vast expanse of ocean.’ The turbulence caused by flurrying notes, particularly in the relentless left hand – on which Kissin spared no energetic expense – never overpowered the rising melody. Though diving and plunging, we never became overwhelmingly submerged in the vivid musical tempest.

Rapid swirling notes were also a feature of the piece that preceded the Scriabin sonata, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D major, D850. The opening movement starts with what appears to be a ditty-like melody very similar to the main theme of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, though not grandiose but cheeky in tone. However, no sooner has it begun than Schubert interrupts this motif stirring things up with quick octave triplet passages that seem to have no bearing on the opening fragment, a textural flitting that endures throughout the Allegro movement, and indeed, the whole work. In his assured performance, Kissin only once lost the firm control he had over every aspect of the music; a slight loss of articulation in the low range during the development was only noticeable because of the exemplary precision of the rest of the movement. The sighing, striving melancholia of the ensuing Con moto was delightful, though perhaps a little stodgy in places towards the beginning. Both the third and fourth movements were similarly excellent for the most part; however, something about the transitions between juxtaposed, contrasting sections made me feel slightly uneasy about Kissin’s interpretation. He rather rushed through these moments of structural tension, cheating the listener of the musical saliency of these pivotal points. There was something lacking from Kissin’s Schubert: the anticipation one should feel as music unfolds in time. It was as if he was performing the music in light of what he knew was to come, rather than inhabiting the music in the present. In short, I felt it lacked the excited apprehension that should be inherent in a live performance of this highest quality.

Excitement was certainly not amiss in the final set of pieces of the recital, seven of Scriabin’s 12 Études. The virtuosity required to master these short but intense pieces is astounding, composed as they were to address specifically pianistic problems. More tempestuous rumblings featured in a number of the studies, and I was thankful for the dimensions of the Barbican Hall which meant that Kissin’s extraordinarily powerful playing was not uncomfortable on the eardrums. However, it wasn’t all spectacular extravagance; Kissin showed remarkable control reeling in the power and dexterity for two beautifully reserved, pensive pieces that contrasted masterfully with the more extrovert numbers. These wonderful nuggets of Scriabin’s sensational style provided Kissin with the perfect springboard to finish his recital with a bang. The thunderous applause showered on the virtuoso from an adoring audience prompted a further three pieces, all of which were very well received.