Classical Piano’s Last Romantic Tames the Mechanical Beast

In Bruno Monsaingeon’s indispensable collection of memories and

musings by the greatest of postwar pianists, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations (Princeton

University Press), the always unfettered Richter gives this reaction to the

playing of an older Russian giant of the keyboard, as heard on the video Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic :

“Phenomenal and off-putting and excellent (in the ‘conservatory’ sense) and

fantastic tone, and thoroughly contradictory. Such talent! And such a trivial

mind …. Such a sympathetic person, so artistic and yet so limited …. ” During a

good deal of Evgeny Kissin’s Oct. 31 recital at Carnegie Hall, I felt like

saying much the same thing.

Mr. Kissin is, of course, this generation’s “Last Romantic”-the

only major pianist left who revels in the fire and flash of Franz Liszt as

though history had stopped with the Franco-Prussian War. (The fire and flash of

Martha Argerich, who had preceded him at Carnegie by a few days, hark back to

nobody but herself.) Following in the footsteps of Horowitz, who was Liszt’s

most celebrated successor, the 30-year-old Russian Wunderkind has built his remarkable career on sheer bravura at a

time when the premium of most of his peers (following the models of Maurizio

Pollini and Alfred Brendel) is on braininess.

Mr. Kissin’s Carnegie program

was a throwback to a format that has become all but extinct in this age of

“perspectives” and “projects”-an assortment of blockbusters linked only by the

demands of pianistic chutzpah. Two of Horowitz’s most celebrated specialties,

Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata in C major and the Schumann

Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, occupied the first half. Indeed, by starting

with the very piece with which the older pianist had opened his historic

comeback recital in 1965 on the same stage, the younger man seemed to be

issuing a challenge and saying: “They may have called you the Thunderer, but

wait until they hear me!”

The differences between the

two virtuosos are striking. Unlike the nerve-wracked Horowitz, Mr. Kissin

walked onstage with his usual gazelle-like opacity, seemingly oblivious to

everything but the safe harbor of the gleaming black Steinway. Whereas Horowitz

entered Bach-Busoni’s majestically spooky sound world like a stealth bomber

(memorably making a mess of the first measure), Mr. Kissin sailed in with the

implacable ease of an ocean liner. Horowitz’s famous sonorities always swelled

to the point of hysteria. Those of his successor rose and fell with the inevitability of waves. Whenever Horowitz

played the Schumann sonata (at the comeback recital, he too had followed the

Bach-Busoni with Schumann-the Fantasy in C major), he made a virtue of its

fitfulness, exposing all the nerve endings. In the embrace of Mr. Kissin’s

preternaturally long arms, the work glowed with jewel-like coherence.

And yet the net effect of

both performances was curiously the same. Not since Horowitz had I been so

conscious of the fact that what I was listening to was a great pianist playing the piano . Pianists have often

likened their instrument to a mechanical beast, pointing out that what they

essentially do is give the creature flesh and blood. After marveling at the

perfection of Mr. Kissin’s double octaves, the volcanic fluency of his runs,

the strobe-lit clarity he brings to the most convoluted passages, I can

confidently say that no virtuoso in history has surpassed him as a piano-tamer.

If immaculate pianism is what you want-and the hall was overflowing with people

who clearly wanted it-then this is the man for you. But why, as had happened so

often at a Horowitz recital, did I feel that while I was being shown something

beautiful, I wasn’t being told anything

interesting?

Mr. Kissin’s second half was devoted to a work in which the

telling is right on the surface: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition . This great piano cycle by the wild man

of the Russian nationalists-a suite of tableaux-like pieces inspired by a

memorial exhibition of drawings and paintings by the composer’s friend, Victor

Hartmann-is mother’s milk to Russian performers, who revel in its pianistic

awkwardness as much as in its highly colored vignettes. Although Horowitz found

the work so ungainly that he made his own version of it, Mr. Kissin took it at

face value and swallowed it whole. The linking “Promenade” sections often

become repetitive annunciations, but here they were genuinely ambulatory,

sounding like an impatient docent eager to keep the crowd moving. Mr. Kissin’s

renderings of the pictures themselves-the quarreling children in “Tuileries,”

the medieval “Old Castle,” the descent into “Catacombs,” the barnyard chatter

of “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and so on-were the work of eyes that can

take in the busiest of compositions at a glance, seeing the way in which every

element contributes to the whole. And yet, if the colors were all in place,

something vital was missing-call it charm, warmth, a sense of real curatorial

affection for the things on the wall.

Only in his extraordinary set of encores-four salon pieces ranging from Tchaikovsky’s wistful Nocturne and

Rachmaninoff’s dazzling transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream , to Liszt’s

grandiose ” Rigoletto Paraphrase” and

Scriabin’s ecstatic Étude, Op. 8, No. 12-did Mr. Kissin convey a sense of real

delight in the marvels he was showing us. Whatever it was that made his

personality seem buried in the longer works suddenly left the stage for these

miniatures. When he took off in an astonishing, lighter-than-air romp through

the Rachmaninoff-Mendelssohn Scherzo, it wasn’t just fabulous fingers we were

hearing, but a man who had finally become fully himself.

Classical Piano’s Last Romantic Tames the Mechanical Beast