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Evgeny Kissin explores contrasts between the two ends of the nineteenth century

Last night the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall presented a solo recital by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin. He chose to present the music of only two composers, one for each half of the program. The first half consisted of a single composition, Franz Schubert’s D. 850 sonata in D major, composed in August of 1825 and sometimes called the “Gastein,” named for a spa that Schubert visited. The intermission was then followed by Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 19 sonata in G-sharp minor, his second sonata which he called “Sonata-Fantasy,” composed between 1892 and 1897. The program then concluded with a selection of seven of the études from Scriabin’s Opus 8 collection of twelve études, composed while he was working on the Opus 19 sonata.

Pianist Evgeny Kissin
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

D. 850 was first published on April 8, 1826 by Matthias Artaria under the title “Seconde grande Sonate.” The “first” was D. 845 in A minor, composed earlier in 1825 (possibly in May). Schubert was clearly interested in the efforts of Ludwig van Beethoven to expand the durational scale of both entire compositions and their individual movements; and in 1825 Schubert had begun to develop successfully his own characteristic logic of prolongation. Harmonically, this involved inventing progressions that would depart significantly from the tonic key and then unfolding paths through which that key would be reestablished. That technique emerged through a rhetoric that explored extreme shifts in the expenditure of energy.

Kissin performed this sonata with a confident command of both its logic and its rhetoric. He deftly managed the rapid shifts in energy levels and guided the attention of his audience through the intricacies of “Schubert’s heavenly length” (Robert Schumann’s words) without ever suggesting that the journey was longer than necessary. One factor that facilitated the passing of time on such a considerable scale was the way in which Kissin took a playful approach to the unfolding of Schubert’s thematic material. In the midst of all of that abundance of content, Kissin entered each new episode with the delight of a child opening yet another birthday present. This was an approach that differed from the “monumental posturing” that has tempted previous pianists; but it was thoroughly engaging in the most successful possible way.

At this point I should also note the clarity of Kissin’s expression, whether it involved thematic statement or thicker textures of counterpoint and harmony. It was through that capacity for clarity that he could arrange a program that served both Schubert and Scriabin with equal respect and delight. In spite of the “fantasy” part of the title, Scriabin was as concerned with structural foundations in his Opus 19 as Schubert had been in D. 850. While many pianists often have a tendency to bathe (a derogatory verb that can be traced back, at least, to the Viennese critic Julius Korngold) in Scriabin’s harmonic ambiguities, Kissin’s interpretation clearly presented the enveloping framework of each of this sonata’s two movements, then allowing the thick textures of embellished counterpoint to define the journey within that framework. This was very much Scriabin for listening, rather than merely indulging in emotional outpourings.

This same attentiveness to structure also emerged through Kissin’s account of the Opus 8 études. In each of them, one could appreciate the technical challenges that had been posed for the “student” to master. At the same time each étude was characterized by a unique expressive voice. Kissin offered up a performance which likened encounters with each étude to the discovery of new paintings while walking through a gallery. Through this focus on the individuality of each of the pieces, Kissin avoided the trap of making the sequence sound like “one damned thing after another,” a risk that confronts every pianist choosing to perform a collection of pieces, each of which has its own independent focus of attention.

All this was met with a wildly enthusiastic audience reception that would not allow Kissin to retire until he had delivered three encores. These included one more Scriabin étude; but it was sandwiched between two pieces, each of which brought an entirely different tone to the evening. The first of these was Wilhelm Kempff’s transcription of the middle Siciliano movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1031 flute sonata. At the other end Kissin concluded his string of encores by finally taking a favorite warhorse by Frédéric Chopin out of the stable. He performed the Opus 53 “Heroic” polonaise in A-flat major with all of the energetic rhetoric it deserves but without ever sacrificing that capacity for clarity of both execution and expression that made this evening so memorable.

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