Evgeny Kissin, Barbican, London – review

Some pianists rush onstage with gladiatorial determination. Evgeny Kissin is not one of them. He walks on stiffly, mouth set, eye contact Awol. Introspection and inscrutability are his calling cards.

Only once seated does he launch his attack – ferociously. More than three decades ago the Russian pianist was dubbed a child prodigy. Now, at 42, he is still astounding, at least as far as virtuosity is concerned. His imagination is powerful. The sense of drive is strong. But the downside is a military approach; he thunders away at the keyboard when a lighter touch would reveal greater depth.

In this Barbican concert, Kissin offered works by Schubert and Scriabin, a package that would have made for powerful contrast, had he eked out the subtle colours in Schubert’s Sonata in D major, D850. Instead he focused on its explosions, effortlessly leapfrogging technical hurdles but steering clear of real tenderness. There were moments when he burrowed for something softer and warmer: in the burnished chords of the con moto movement, for example, and the impish figurations of Scherzo: allegro vivace. But these dissolved all too quickly into hammering that, at times, felt petulant, like a child scrawling with thick marker pen over a delicate pencil drawing.

After this, the turbulence of Scriabin’s Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor, Op 19 “Sonata-Fantasy” was almost anticlimactic. Nevertheless, Kissin’s pianism is clearly more at home in this world of vibrantly evoked sea pictures and abrupt mood swings than in Schubert’s less flamboyant soundscape. He cloaked the Chopin-esque figurations in fluorescent colours, driving the music forward with furious exactitude.

His second Scriabin offering made even more of an impression: the 12 Études, Op 8 are jewel-like creations, each one highly distinctive and yet over before you know it. Kissin thrust them, one by one, under the magnifying glass, laying out their individual characteristics for our scrutiny – in particular the sensuousness of No 4; and the yearning lyricism of No 8, devoted to Scriabin’s first love Natalya Sekerina. Still, the most loving detail was left for the encore, a Bach sicilienne, only a couple of minutes long, but with all the supple-fingered sensitivity that the first half of this recital had so badly needed.


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