Monday, October 15, 2018

Kissin at his Best in Interpreting Rachmaninoff

Pianist Evgeny Kissin (from his San Francisco Symphony event page)

Yesterday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series, presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to host visiting talent, offered its first concert of the season. The program was a solo recital by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, who made his debut in Davies performing with SFS in 1994. Kissin devoted the entire second half of his program to preludes by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and his approach to this selection was definitely the high point of the program. The major work on the first half was Robert Schumann’s Opus 14 (third) piano sonata in F minor, preceded by two nocturnes composed by Frédéric Chopin (who happened to have been born in the same year as Schumann, 1810). The selected nocturnes were the first (in F minor) from Opus 55 and the second (in E major) from Opus 62.

Rachmaninoff composed only two collections of short pieces that he identified as preludes. The first of these was the Opus 23 set of ten, composed in 1903. This was followed in 1910 by the thirteen preludes in Opus 32. Neither of these publications offers much by way of an overall structure other than what is clearly a deliberate attempt to alternate major and minor keys. Most likely Rachmaninoff’s strongest influence was Alexander Scriabin, for whom the prelude was definitely a favored genre, so much so that, as his career progressed, it tended to serve as a “test bed” for his explorations in new approaches to the logic of harmonic progression.

In contrast, there is nothing particular “experimental” in Rachmaninoff’s approach to the prelude. Most likely its greatest appeal was the constraint of brevity, serving somewhat as the musical equivalent of a lyric poem. When one reads through the contents lists of both Opus 23 and Opus 32, the first thing that comes to mind is that, in Opus 23, Rachmaninoff never uses only one tempo marking twice, Largo at both the beginning and the conclusion. Opus 32 is not quite so strictly constrained, with two of the tempo markings being repeated in less strategic ways. Even with those repetitions, however, there is a clear sense that, within each set, each prelude is distinguished by its own unique character. Thus, the challenge for any pianist wishing to perform a collection in its entirety is to make sure that the listener grasps (and hopefully relishes) the characteristic uniqueness of each piece, never giving the collection as a whole a sense of “one damned thing after another.”

Last night Kissin performed the first seven of the Opus 23 preludes in the order in which they were published. They were followed by the tenth, twelfth, and thirteenth preludes from Opus 32. Within that selection Allegro is the only repeated tempo. On the other hand the minor-major alternation established in Opus 23 is disrupted by the specific selections from Opus 32. Nevertheless, the underlying concept of a journey through distinctively unique short pieces could not have been better rendered. Kissin clearly treated each individual prelude as if it were a “best friend” that he was eager to introduce to his listeners (for whom the Alla marcia prelude in G minor, the fifth in the Opus 23 collection, may have been the only familiar selection).

Listening to Kissin’s exposition of these preludes left me wishing that he had devoted the first half of his program to taking a similar approach to the Scriabin preludes. What he did offer during that first half was, sadly, far less compelling or, for that matter, convincing. Schumann’s Opus 14 sonata is more notorious than famous, best known for a final movement with the tempo marking Prestissimo possible (as fast as possible), which requires the pianist to speed up that tempo at two critical locations in the score. Kissin never quite grasped the manic urgency of that movement or, for that matter, the unabated “Florestan spirit” that dominates the preceding three movements.

Probably what makes this sonata so problematic is that the composer was so wrapped up in technical syntax that he never figured out how to complement his grand designs with a coherent sense of rhetoric. Pianists with a solid understanding of the scope of Schumann’s repertoire tend to compensate for this lack in the composer’s planning when they play Opus 14 (composed in 1836 but later revised in 1853). Last night Kissin gave no suggestion that he was one of those pianists. He executed the score as if all that mattered was jumping through a prodigious number of technical hoops, and even many in the audience were left uncertain as to when the piece actually ended.

Sadly, his approach to the brevity of the two Chopin nocturnes was equally dissatisfying. In this case it is clear that rhetoric was foremost in the composer’s mind, but Kissin never seemed to get beyond the syntax of the marks on paper. As a result, while all of the notes seemed to be in the right place, they never cohered to engage the listener with any distinctive features that one would associate with the character of a Chopin nocturne.

Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the Rachmaninoff set, it was more than evident that Kissin was enjoying the adulation of his audience. His response was to serve up four encores. The consistency across the four of them was mixed, but the enthusiasm of the crowd never abated. The most appropriate of those encores was the last, a Rachmaninoff-appropriate nod to Scriabin with a performance of the C-sharp minor étude that is the first in Scriabin’s Opus 2 set of three pieces. Two of the other encores involved taking another crack at both Schumann and Chopin. The “Träumerei” (dreams) movement from Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection was as featureless as his readings of the Chopin nocturnes, while Chopin’s Opus 53 “heroic” polonaise in A-flat major basically galumphed its way through its technical demands.

On the other hand Kissin put all of his personal enthusiasm into his own composition, “Dodecaphonic Tango.” This was a delightful bit of tomfoolery in which an unabashed approach to tango rhetoric runs headlong into the constraints of a serial composition. My own fantasy world has the ghost of Arnold Schoenberg smiling benignly in the presence of this exercise. If ever there were a demonstration that rhythm triumphs over all other factors, Kissin’s warped perspective on tango style would be it. This was a piece with a decidedly unique character that could hold its own in the company of all the diverse characteristics that populate Rachmaninoff’s preludes.

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