Marathon finish for masterful Evgeny Kissin

The last several days have brought a feast of major-league piano playing to Symphony Center, courtesy of keyboard virtuosos born 30 years apart.

And while differences in training, repertory and temperament separate Maurizio Pollini and Evgeny Kissin, I found fascinating points of similarity between Pollini's performance of a Mozart concerto with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week, and the recital Kissin presented in sold-out Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Along with sovereign technique and complete mastery of the keyboard, the Italian pianist and his younger Russian colleague share an ability to invest everything they play with the utmost thoughtfulness and musical integrity. Neither Pollini nor Kissin traffics in showmanship for its own empty sake. Each is a serious, thoroughgoing musician whose immaculately controlled readings may sometimes err on the side of emotional containment but convey enormous musical depth.

So it was at Kissin's recital Sunday. Previous appearances by this formidable artist focused on the Romantic piano literature. This time around, he concentrated on Viennese classical repertory by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Not until Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C sharp minor at the end of the program did the pianist indulge the crowd with the expected burst of pyrotechnics.

His pairing of a Haydn piano sonata (E flat major, H.XVI:49) with Beethoven's final sonata (No. 32 in C minor, Opus 111) proved apt, since his searching account of the slow movement of the Haydn work demonstrated the kinship Haydn's abrupt harmonic shifts have with Beethoven's. Throughout the Haydn, Kissin's playing was a model of vigor, fluidity and perfectly regulated fingerwork. And his crisp articulation showed an appreciation of Papa Haydn's dry wit.

Kissin's Beethoven was more controversial, though certainly not on technical grounds. How many other pianists give those grand, annunciatory chords that open the two-movement piece the finely judged weight he brought to them? How many are able to make each line of Beethoven's polyphony register so distinctly, and with such firmness of tone and rhythm?

But while the arietta brought much raptly beautiful playing, it plodded at times, missing the poetic transcendence great Beethoven pianists of an older generation brought to it. Perhaps Kissin's concentration was disrupted by the undercurrent of coughing, sneezing and ringing cellphones.

The rewards were more consistent in the four Schubert Impromptus (D. 935 and 899) with which he launched the second half of his program.

You had only to hear how deftly he set the melodic line against the left-hand accompaniment to the F minor impromptu, or the unaffected simplicity with which he spun the variations of the B flat major, to recognize you were in the presence of one of today's master Schubert interpreters. A kind of faux sonata when presented in sequence, the four pieces constitute a garden of Schubertian delights Kissin tended with all manner of graceful insights.

When it comes to Liszt, this artist can roar, gallop and sing with the best of them. His account of that composer's C sharp minor Hungarian Rhapsody was an object lesson in impeccable pianistic control wedded to swashbuckling brilliance, in a recognizably Russian manner. Not only did he dispatch the fast pages as fast as they can possibly be played, but the leonine power he unleashed at the final peroration was something Orchestra Hall hasn't heard very often since the heyday of Horowitz.

Noel Coward's famous quip about the potency of cheap music certainly applies to this Liszt work, but by embracing its vulgarity rather than trying to intellectualize it, Kissin did indeed make the score feel potent rather than cheap.

Naturally the crowd leapt to its feet, clapping and cheering before breaking into rhythmic applause. Trading his serious mien for a tight smile, Kissin kept the audience hanging on before delivering his encores. There were four in all, a marathon that lasted some 30 minutes and included some of his finest pianism of the afternoon: Giovanni Sgambati's arrangement of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," from Gluck's "Orpheus and Euridice"; Liszt's "Transcendental Etude" in F minor; Liszt's arrangement of Schubert's "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"); and Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor. | Twitter @jvonrhein

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    The four musicians in Marrow know quite a bit about bringing diverse influences to the table. After all, three of them, singer-guitarist Liam Kazar, singer-keyboardist Macie Stewart and bassist Lane Beckstrom were in Kids These Days, a now-defunct septet that combined jazz, funk, rap and rock in...

  • The Kids These Days family tree

    The Kids These Days family tree

    From its 2009 beginnings to its 2013 demise, Chicago's Kids These Days seemed like one of the most promising acts the city had seen in years. While the band split up at the height of its hype, its members have since gone on to do bigger and better things—seriously impressive considering the hip-hop/rock/jazz...

  • Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has sued Chicago's former red light camera operator, Redflex Traffic Systems, for more than $300 million on grounds the entire program was built on a $2 million bribery scheme at City Hall that has already led to federal corruption convictions.

  • Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    After the dissolution of Kids These Days, the much-buzzed about Chicago fusion-jazz-rock-rap septet that split in spring 2013 just a few months after releasing its only album, “Traphouse Rock,” some of its members spent what seems like all of 20 minutes bandless. "We were driving back from the...

  • Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Welcome to RedEye's "Song of the Day," an ongoing feature where music reporter Josh Terry or another RedEye staff member highlights something they're listening to. Some days the track will be new, and some days it will be old. No matter what, each offering is something you should check out. Check...

  • GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    Technical difficulties at GrubHub and Seamless over the weekend drove hordes of hangry would-be customers to air their grievances on social media. The food ordering and delivery sites, which merged in 2013 and use GrubHub’s back-end technology, errantly accepted payments on Saturday evening without...