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March 7, 2011

Weekend whirlwind, round 2: The one and only Evgeny Kissin

Saturday found me in DC for a pair of musical events, starting in the afternoon with Evgeny Kissin's all-Liszt recital at the Kennedy Center for the Washington Performing Arts Society.

There are a lot of gifted pianists today, and then there's Kissin. He was in a class by himself when he was 12, performing the Chopin concertos with a technique and sensitivity that elude many a musician twice or even three times that age.

He was in a class by himself when he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1990 -- I wasn't the only keyboard fan that traveled quite a distance to be there for what everyone in the place knew was going to be something out of the ordinary.

At 39, Kissin remains a breathtaking talent. You just don't come across such technical mastery every day.

And I do mean mastery. To borrow the Oscar Wilde line, anyone can play accurately, so I'm not talking about the fact that all the notes are there when Kissin plays.

It's what he does with the notes that counts, the seamless way he articulates the busiest of passages so that you don't hear individual bits and pieces, but waves of tone color in the most refined and telling of shades. 

Kissin clearly relished the opportunities Liszt provided to bring out from the piano a whole orchestra's worth of diverse and meaningful sound.

I know folks who ...

waste no opportunity to bash Liszt as a composer, and I'm sure there are pianists who won't waste their time with him (or Rachmaninoff). I don't get it. What you hear in Liszt is a churning intellectual mind and emotional heart, stretching the then-boundaries of a keyboard, not to mention harmony and thematic development.

Sure, Liszt could write some vapid or overly busy things, but what brilliance and character there is in his best work. The B minor Sonata, to mention a most obvious example, is a marvel of artistic ingenuity, and Kissin dove into it with wonderful expressive warmth and a keen sense of timing, creating great tension. The sprawling work seemed to pass by in an eventful, mesmerizing flash.

Throughout the afternoon, the pianist made Liszt's music sing and sigh and soar. Never a vulgar measure, never an obvious, playing-to-the-balcony effect. Just pure, involving musicality that carried him in style from the "Ricordanza" Transcendental Etude to the drama-rich "Funerailles" to the sparkling picture postcards from "Venezia e Napoli."

Kissin rewarded the persistent ovations with three encores, which included a sublime "Liebestraum" and deeply poetic account of the Schumann/Liszt "Widmung." Simply put, it was an honor to be in the presence of such supreme pianism.

Here's an example of what I mean -- a clip (from a different recital) of Kissin playing that evergreen "Liebestraum":


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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