A Pianist Glances Back at Russian Tradition
© New York Times

Published: October 14, 2003

Despite the deserved acclaim that Evgeny Kissin has won for his technically incomparable and deeply communicative playing, a minority of listeners, I among them, have had qualms about its sometimes exaggerated expressivity, a throwback to the Russian Romantic tradition.

Mr. Kissin's most clear-headed playing, in my experience, came four years ago in, paradoxically, a Russian Romantic work: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, a performance at Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Though Mr. Levine met Mr. Kissin on his own stylistic grounds, his example encouraged the young pianist to balance expressivity with structural rigor, always a hallmark of Mr. Levine's work.

So there was good reason to anticipate the latest collaboration between Mr. Kissin and Mr. Levine, on Sunday afternoon when the Met Orchestra played its first concert of the season at Carnegie Hall. The work was Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2, and when it ended the ecstatic ovation for this gangly, soulful young artist went on and on.

Yet the Romantic fervor in Brahms is of an entirely different nature from Rachmaninoff's. Ideally a performance must convey the concerto's Germanic structural underpinnings along with its rhapsodic sweep, and the balance here was shaky.

As always, you listened in awe to the glorious qualities of Mr. Kissin's pianism: the uncanny fluidity of his finger work, the myriad colorings, the delineation of inner voices, the relaxed yet ferocious bursts of power. Mr. Kissin tore commandingly through the driving chordal passages of the first movement. But during searchingly lyrical moments he tugged and pulled lyrical lines, slackening the tempo so much that this magisterial music turned ponderous.

At times his rhythmic spontaneity seemed calculated for effect. Why expand almost every surging melody at the highest peak of the phrase? In comparison with this sometimes mannered performance the conductor Georg Szell (Mr. Levine's mentor) and the pianist Rudolf Serkin sound like young Turks on their bracing 1966 recording, made when both artists were in their 60's.

Mr. Kissin and Mr. Levine brought a potent blend of volatility and mystery to the stormy, impassioned, scherzo-like second movement. Still, the tempos were all over the place. The dreamy Andante was far better suited to Mr. Kissin's ruminative lyricism, helpfully reined in by Mr. Levine. It was refreshing to hear the principal cellist, Jerry Grossman, play the long opening cello solo with exquisite simplicity. The final movement, a deceptively gracious Allegretto, was also rewarding. Mr. Kissin played with miraculous lightness of touch and, more important, maintained an undulant yet consistent tempo.

The expressive freedom of the Brahms stood in contrast to the performance of Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" in the concert's first half. Michael Ouzounian, the orchestra's principal violist, was the elegantly subdued soloist. His playing might have seemed too subdued, even pale and timid, had not Mr. Levine supported it with wondrously refined and lithe playing from the orchestra.

For the audience, though, the day belonged to Mr. Kissin, who played four solo encores. Dashing through his virtuosic adaptation of one of Brahms's hot-blooded Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands, Mr. Kissin was in his element. Structure, smucksure. Who cared?

- Frank B.
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