Evgeny Kissin, Barbican, London

Evgeny Kissin’s mantelpiece must be a riot of flowers at the moment. Twice during his Liszt recital on Sunday, once at the interval and then again at the end of the evening, members of the public came rushing up on to the platform to present him with bouquets – something not usually seen at piano recitals in London. Liszt himself would surely have loved it.

In the 1840s, when “Lisztomania” was at its height, the composer was regularly mobbed and women were said to have fought over his gloves and handkerchiefs. It is hard to identify a virtuoso heart-throb like him today. Kissin, 40 this year, stiff as an automaton, unsmiling as ever, hardly seems to fit the bill, but sit him at the keyboard and he is one of the few who can really dazzle, as Liszt must have done.

To mark the composer’s bicentenary year, Kissin has put together an all-Liszt recital programme. As though to wrong-foot expectations, it started with the Transcendental Etude No.9, “Ricordanza”, a gentle fantasy where waterfalls of sound must shimmer and beguile – not always Kissin’s strong point, but here the notes rippled with magical ease, showering every shade of delicate, soft tone colour as they went.

He did nothing better all evening. The grand B Minor Sonata was an obvious highpoint of technical mastery (who else hurtles down precipices of double octaves with such ease?) but there was little sense of the romantic idol letting inspiration carry him on its wing. Kissin is always the cool-headed technician, inviting us to peer inside and watch the mechanics at work – hammers striking the strings with immaculate precision, and sometimes with punishing physical force. At the sonata’s climaxes the sound often became hard and metallic.

The second half followed in much the same vein. “Funérailles” had a formidable, rather unremitting concentration and “Vallée d’Obermann” from the First Book of the Années de pélerinage lacked something of the pictorial atmosphere of a musical landscape painter. The three playful showpieces of Venezia e Napoli, however, lifted off with a technical sparkle that was little short of astonishing and held the audience enthralled. Give Kissin enough notes and there is nobody like him. Perhaps he should be watching out for his gloves and handkerchiefs.


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