BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas (Kissin)
Evgeny Kissin appears to be an unwilling visitor to recording studios these days and offers for this double album live performances of Beethoven taped at six different venues over the decade from 2006 to 2016. Expect the varying acoustic properties of the halls to be a factor in your listening, plus balances of piano sound produced – as the booklet says – ‘under various technical conditions’. Less easy to tolerate is the amount of audience noise, intruding at the beginning of several tracks and at its worst in the Appassionata.
Kissin is making a pitch, I imagine, to be admired as a Beethoven player after an intense engagement with Beethoven’s music that began, he says, at an early age. Now in his forties, it took him a long time, he admits, ‘to feel entirely at home here’. His technical brilliance is often on display with a shock-and-awe quality sufficient to silence anybody; I’ve no quarrel with that, since he conveys the fact that Beethoven’s virtuosity is always directly connected with the music and that every great composer for the piano demanded things of the player that had previously not existed. Kissin is about to include the Hammerklavier Sonata in his public concerts, and I’ll be interested to see whether his gifts include sufficient intellectual acuity and the reserves of deep feeling required to launch and sustain its great slow movement.
I have my doubts, on the evidence of listening to his Beethoven so far. He rises much more surely to the challenge of producing a lot of sound and movement than to anything requiring the illumination of a poet. An early disappointment is the slow movement of the Sonata in C major, Op 2 No 3, which tweaks an essentially vocal melody this way and that in the absence of any command of cantabile. The first movement of the Appassionata is disfigured by too many tempos and wrecked by the crude coming and going of them; the tragic character of the work should be established from the start – would-be passionate agitation will not do. At the risk of sounding pedantic, the projection of Beethoven’s fundamental creative impulses comes about in the first place from an attentive reading of his text. To be fair to Kissin, that can be a lifetime’s work!
One has to accept, I think, that he likes to live at the extremes. Predictably, the ferocity of the finale of the Moonlight Sonata is unbridled as few could make it, with gunshots punctuating the stormscape as soon as it begins. Other pianists (Bavouzet, for example) show that a concern for the balance and choreography of the hands at the start is just as important. At the opening of the last Sonata, Op 111, the downward leaps for the left hand, three times, are given precision engineering by Kissin, but much of what he does thereafter in the first movement is irreproachable. In the Arietta, the second movement, the theme is too slow to be floated as a line singable by the human voice (molto semplice e cantabile is Beethoven’s instruction), which is surely a mistake; as soon as it gives way to the first variation he goes off at an amble. There is a similar disjunction in the Variations in C minor, played with relish but fast and loose with the flux of characters and intensities Beethoven so vividly controls after the enunciation of the chaconne-like theme.
I like him everywhere in the E flat Sonata Les adieux, however, as if a perception of the humanity of the music had given him the key. For the interpreter, the presence of the motto theme (‘Le-be-wohl’) is a guide, of course, and for anyone able to manage the notes as well as Kissin does, the narrative symbolism of the journey will be a delight. I am reminded of an excellent comment by William Kindermann to the effect that Beethoven never loses himself in abstraction and does not stand aloof from concerns of life.