Arts concert review

A prodigious piano performance

Pianist Evgeny Kissin receives four standing ovations in one night

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Russian classical pianist Evgeny Igorevitch Kissin performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 16.
Robert torres

Evgeny Kissin

Piano Recital

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

Mar. 16, 2014

Symphony Hall, Boston

The stage of Symphony Hall — usually packed with over a hundred Boston Symphony Orchestra performers — seemed empty on Sunday evening, as it had nothing but one grand piano. But that all changed when Evgeny Kissin released the first chord of Franz Schubert’s Sonata No. 17. The sheer power of that first note, which filled the entire Hall, marked the beginning of a night of phenomenal piano music.

Russian classical pianist Evgeny Kissin, internationally recognized as one of the most gifted classical musicians of his generation, has performed worldwide with countless renowned orchestras, including those in Russia, Eastern Europe, Japan, Germany, Britain, and North America. The Celebrity Series, a performing arts series that is celebrating its 75th anniversary, presented his recital debut thirteen years ago in Boston. Kissin has received dozens of musical awards for his performances across the world, and on Sunday, the audience of Symphony Hall had the opportunity to witness his extraordinary talent.

Kissin opened the night with Schubert’s Sonata No. 17, a playful piece with impetuous rhythms and unpredictable harmonies. Kissin’s demonstrated his breathtaking virtuosity, his fingers running up and down scales with impressive dexterity, and his hands jumping across the piano keyboard with perfect precision. Most striking was his range of dynamics: Kissin, at times, produced notes so hushed and delicate that the audience held its breathe and at other times, he released notes so thundering and powerful that some audience members jumped out of their seats.

Following the intermission was Sonata No. 2, Opus 19 by Scriabin, also known as his Sonata-Fantasy. In comparison to the whimsical character of Schubert’s sonata, this agitated and darkly somber sonata demonstrated Kissin’s musical depth and touched his listeners’ hearts. Kissin delivered the complex counterpoint between the left and right hand effortlessly, always guiding his listeners’ ears to the melodic line. As the melancholic melodic line slowly melted away into a dream-like fantasy, Kissin’s mastery over the piano was evident.

Kissin concluded the scheduled program with another work by Scriabin, namely a selection of pieces from his Twelve Etudes, Opus 8. An “etude,” meaning “study” in French, is usually a musical composition meant to train a pianist’s technique; but Kissin breathed life into all seven of the etudes he performed, transforming these “practice pieces” into unforgettable works of art. In No. 2 he displayed perfect cross-rhythms between two hands, effortlessly playing five notes over three, five over four, and six over four. His fluid arpeggios in No. 4 relaxed the audience — only to jolt them awake with his furious and rapid octaves in No. 5 and No. 9, during which his hands adeptly jumped across the entire range of the keyboard. At times it sounded as though his performance were the result of four hands playing, not just two.

Immediately after the final, grandiose cadence, the audience burst into a standing ovation, punctuated by frequent cries of “Bravo!” as audience members ran up to the stage to hand Kissin bouquets of flowers. The audience’s continued applause signified their plea to hear more, a request to which he gladly responded. Kissin delivered three encores: Siciliana by Bach-Kempff, a hauntingly beautiful piece; Scriabin’s Opus 42, No.5, another display of his unarguable mastery over the piano; and Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, a joyful tune that is familiar to even non-musicians. I believe I was not the only one in the audience who was humming it the entire night after the concert!

Kissin’s performance not only was virtuosic in terms of technical skill, but demonstrated his exceptional expressive and poetic depth. For those two hours, all those in Symphony Hall were united, captivated by his piano music.