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Kissin at The Barbican


Brahms Pieces Op118

Chopin Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Op 22
+ encores


Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Barbican Hall, London 5 March 2007


What is great about Kissin is his technique; what is not great is that you can never get past it.

I have always felt extremely warmly about Kissin; I remember with the greatest admiration his 1997 Proms recital, and its pristine, flawless Haydn. Where the least error sticks out and potentially spoils the flow of the music, where you can't get away with anything, as is true above all in Mozart, but also certainly in Haydn or Beethoven, the sort of supernatural precision Kissin possesses stands both him and the music in good stead.


I did not hear a single wrong note in his Beethoven 32 Variations; the accuracy in rapid passages was breathtaking. And yet, at the end, it had sounded like a group of Czerny studies. The cadenzas of the Liszt Liebestraum (the first encore) were supernaturally perfect, the rest of the piece sadly empty – there was certainly no sense that the cadenzas represented a shattering of ‘love's dream.'


A lack of tenderness in Schubert, or in Beethoven, is already a question mark, but in the intimate world of late Brahms, hard enough to inhabit at the best of times, it makes the music incomprehensible. Kissin reveres Gilels, and spoke of his ‘golden sound.' But in no way does he sound like Gilels (indeed, Kissin seemed to have to work quite hard at tone production, and the piano sounded harsh above mezzo forte. Gilels' Brahms is always rounded, whole-some, making sense of pieces I don't find easy to approach). Kissin's remoteness had the opposite effect, making the pieces unlistenable for me.


The later stages of the recital seemed surreal, more a ceremony than a musical performance. Kissin played the Chopin Grande Polonaise with a flashy ending; the audience applauded. After the requisite number of curtain calls he began a series of extremely familiar encores, of which the Mendelssohn Spinning Song was the best. Kissin is an absolutely ideal interpreter of Mendelssohn, where having fast fingers is so important. It is entirely consistent that Kissin's favourite food is sushi. The cleanest food, the cleanest playing. Listening to Kissin is like being in a spotlessly clean bathroom or in a disinfected hospital room, utterly hygienic and sanitised.


No-one in the world matches Kissin for technique (Lang Lang is perhaps being billed as the new, young Kissin), but whereas Horowitz or Cherkassky had a spontaneity that made their techniques a vehicle for scintillating exhilaration, Kissin never, ever loses control for an instant. It curiously deadens the excitement.


I found myself asking, what, in the long term, does Kissin do?


It doesn't seem to me that his performances are becoming deeper, or that he is comfortable with the emotional language of music. He surely can no longer be satisfied playing the same set of specious encores, pieces that sound natural and remarkable when played by a child prodigy, but meaningless when endlessly repeated.


Attending this recital was fascinating, but saddening. Only the fact that the hall was full on a Monday night, suggesting that classical music is not quite as moribund as has been suggested, was cheering.


Jill Crossland

See also Kissin at Lucerne 2001 [Editor]

Schubert Sonata in E flat D568

Beethoven 32 Variations WoO80


Luciano Berio Piano Music

Andrea Lucchesini piano

Avie AV2104 (2006)

At last... the Berio disc that afficionados have been waiting for; performances of the complete piano music by the interpreter closest to the composer. It promises much and does not disappoint, featuring a beautifully-recorded, translucent piano sound that matches the clarity of the interpretation.

The Sonata (2001) is of course the major work on the disc. Completed just before Berio's death, yet instantly recognised as an important composition for piano - a marker of quality laid down at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Berio's own description of the rhetoric is succinct:

All Sonatas, no matter of which time and from which place, initiate and develop, always and in every case, a dialogue between different characters of expressions, between structural identities and techniques, between continuity and discontinuance, between the simple and the complex, between presence and absence... In my “Sonata” - that dialogue is certainly present, but its distribution over time, i.e. its syntax, is indifferent to the nature of its own expressive characters.

This ‘indifference' is clearly felt by the listener. Material is presented, juxtaposed, developed in a seemingly improvisational manner, yet a dramatic structure builds throughout, not least through the hypnotically repeated B-flat. The piece demands a multitude of piano timbres, here seemingly effortlessly produced by Lucchesini.

For performers of the piece this recording is an invaluable document - not just as a Berio-approved interpretation, but also as a source of inspiration. With Lucchesini, even the fastest chordal flurries are beautifully voiced, and pedalling remains clear at all times. A performance to aspire to. There are also detailed sleevenotes describing Lucchesini's work with the composer, a passage from which I must reproduce here for its lucidity:

... I remember how he insisted on a sort of virtuosity in the instrumental gesture, understood as the ability to change, continuously and brusquely, both the procedure of the keystrokes and the timbric quality of every phrase. This generated, he felt, a mechanism of expectancy and a heightening of the surprise whose effect was to be very similar to that of an improvisation - despite the fact that even here the score is very detailed and stringent. This variability of performance attitudes calls for the constant attention, interrupted only by the long silence of the scored pauses, which indeed he encouraged me to prolong, almost as if to provide the time necessary for recharging the tension for the next sound event.

There is also a fascinating note from the Sonata's dedicatee, Reinhold Brinkmann, discussing issues that affect our perceptions of monumental works such as this.

The disc includes superb interpretations of Rounds (1967), and Cinque Variazoni (1952/1953 - revised 1966.) The performance of the Six Encores is without a doubt the best that I have heard, with extreme characterization of the different elements. This is something that many performers tend to underplay in comparison, perhaps thinking that the composer has done all the work for them.

The Sequenza IV has never been a favourite of mine, and while Lucchesini plays it well, I still remain unable to love this piece in the way that I do the vast majority of Berio's ouevre. It just doesn't grab me.

The disc is completed by two unpublished piano duets both written in 1991, played by Lucchesini with his pianist wife, Valentina Pagni Lucchesini. Berio was a witness at their wedding and wrote Touch as a gift for them. The second duet, Canzonetta, was a gift to Valentina's parents. They are both charming, and one hopes that they will become available to other performers, their brief length making them ideal as encores for two-piano recitals. (Touch is 1 minute 47 seconds, Canzonetta 51 secs)

Ying Chang