The music world likes its “years,” and 2020 will be a “Beethoven year.” But isn’t every year a Beethoven year? Sure, but next year will mark the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of his birth—so it will be a special year.
Seven years later, we will have another Beethoven year—for 2027 will mark the two-hundredth anniversary of his death. And on it goes . . .
Last night at the Salzburg Festival, in the Great Festival Hall, Evgeny Kissin, the Russian-born pianist, played an all-Beethoven recital. Good for him for jumping the gun, and not being a great respecter of “years.” He played four mighty works, all with nicknames—nicknames such as “Moonlight” (although this sonata was not one of the pieces he played).
Please note that some of Beethoven’s greatest works have no nicknames at all. Think of the last three piano sonatas: Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111.
Kissin opened his recital with the “Pathétique”—no, not Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, but Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13. It begins with a big C-minor chord—and Kissin played the thing to perfection.
What’s in a chord? There is a lot in this one. It must be full, rich, and arresting. It must grab the attention and set the scene. It says, “Listen up: you’re in for something.”
Kissin played the first movement with intelligence and dynamism. Some accents are a little harsh for me, when Kissin plays, but this is expected, after all these years.
I was a little worried about the slow movement, marked Adagio cantabile. This is an A-flat-major song, one of the most famous slow movements in all of Beethoven, and, indeed, in all of music. Would Kissin be plodding, head-nodding, and thumping in it? Would it be cantabile—singing—enough?
It was okay. Cantabile is not the great Kissin’s outstanding gift. I must say, however, that he played this movement with a big fat tone, deep into the keys. And that, for sure, is an outstanding gift.
The closing Rondo was interesting. Kissin took it at a deliberate pace. He knows that the excitement of this music does not depend on speed. When all was said and done, he reminded us—reminded me, I should say—why the “Pathétique,” which can be hackneyed, got famous and loved in the first place.
Next on the program was the “Eroica” Variations in E flat, Op. 35. Just a week and a half ago, Michael Brown, an American pianist, played these variations at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. I was saying how seldom you hear this great piece these days. And here it was again, at the Salzburg Festival.
Talk about an opening chord. Beethoven begins this set with a huge one. A huge announcement. Evgeny Kissin is just the man to do the announcing. The announcement was huge indeed, but not pounded.
As he played the variations, and the fugue that follows, Kissin was clear, logical, and commanding. He knows what he wants to say, and he has the fingers to say it. What he thinks, he can execute. For me, he is sometimes too mechanical and percussive, but this is a matter of taste. Each variation had its essential character. I would have liked more lilt, let’s say, in some of them, but that’s me. Kissin can communicate Beethoven’s sweep—the titanic feeling that is in Beethoven.
This reading was very impressive. Was it uplifting? I don’t know. Maybe less than it was impressive.
I will give you a footnote: Kissin emitted some Gouldian groans and grunts, but did no singing.
The second half of the recital opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2. This is the “Tempest.” In the first movement—which moves from Largo to Allegro—Kissin showed keen sensitivity. He also pedaled shrewdly, which is related. He created some interesting blurs. I was talking earlier about singing. Kissin did some real singing in this first movement, no doubt.
In the middle movement, Kissin demonstrated a critical quality: patience. He let the music have its own logic. He did not force anything upon it. And he accompanied the melody with some beautiful, smooth passagework. The final movement, Allegretto, had great intensity. But a quiet intensity. You could also use the familiar phrase “submerged passion.”
Let me tell you a secret: I, who worship the ground Beethoven walks on, and the thirty-two piano sonatas in particular, have never particularly liked the “Tempest.” Thanks to Kissin, I understand it better and appreciate it more. A higher compliment is hard to pay.
Kissin ended the printed program with the “Waldstein,” the Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53. The first movement had evenness of tempo—a quality that can be overlooked, but one that is sorely needed. The music was tight, tight (in a good way). And Kissin created those waves of sound, the musical ocean, that Beethoven needs. In the slow movement, the pianist was guilty of some thumping, I think. But he effected the transition into the last movement neatly. And he played this movement . . . well, thrillingly. I could provide ample detail, but “thrillingly” will do.
Sviatoslav Richter (1915–97) played constantly and was recorded constantly—in the studio and live. YouTube is swimming with Richter recordings. Some of them are great—immortal—and some of them should be effaced. One separates the chaff from the wheat, even with the great Richter.
In the future, surely, YouTube—or its successors—will be swimming with Kissin. YouTube probably is now. Like Richter, Kissin has his highs and lows, or his highs and less highs, let’s say. Tuesday night in the Great Festival Hall was a high. Will this recital find its way onto the great wide Net? We can hope so.
Kissin played three encores, which I will pass over, in favor of two footnotes.
(1) As Kissin was bowing, a dad and his boy, maybe eleven years old, made their way down an aisle. I was a little puzzled. What were they up to? I didn’t see any flowers. The boy scooched his way painstakingly between the first-row people and the stage—an exceedingly narrow passage (in fact, no passage at all). He got to where Kissin was bowing. Then he thrust something for the pianist to sign, along with a pen. Kissin declined, making a gesture that said, “I can see you backstage later.”
I had never seen this before: an autograph request during a curtain call. It was awkward for all involved, I think.
(2) The hair, the hairline, the forehead? Maybe it was just the evening, but, when I looked at Kissin, I thought of Beethoven . . .