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April 29, 2003

Evgeny and Schubert sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N

He's weird, but with utter conviction. That's what was most salient about Evgeny Kissin in his performance of the Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat Major and a series of Liszt pieces on Tuesday, April 15 at Symphony Center. Kissin's bow is freakishly methodical; his hair appears electrified atop his giant dome. His playing is Glenn Gouldish, with his unusual tempi and faith in being different. But for all of its weirdness, Kissin's playing seems familiar and easy to understand because he welcomes us into his exquisite world of quirkiness.

There are few who play the first movement of Schubert as slowly as Kissin, and there is almost no one who can play the movement at such a snail's pace and still captivate an audience. Kissin mesmerized the audience at Symphony Center, demonstrating the utmost care with each phrase, each note, engaging listeners eager to find out what strange twist would come next. But while Kissin's playing was sensitive, his slow tempo and overly intentional playing made the piece seem somewhat contrived. The theme begins with a thin voice that is beautiful and shapely, and usually increases in expansiveness. Kissin tamed this theme to the point of stagnancy, practically disallowing the perpetually moving left hand to create shape for the right hand. He also inserted several pauses in the progression to the theme's climax, eliminating any sense of flow and making it all too cerebral for my taste.

The harmonies and sounds that are often neglected by others were awe inspiring in Kissin's Andante. It is the kind of playing where one listens for what is different, not for what is familiar. He even spun long stretches of repeated notes or figures in the left hand into delicate phrases that captured our attention as would a memorable melody. This repetition felt like a prelude to a murder scene in a scary movie. The feeling of doom and ambivalence that the repeated notes evoked seemed appropriate to the Andante and a contrast to Kissin's hesitant and lethargic Molto moderato of the first movement. It was also in the second movement that Kissin's playing took on a Bach-like quality, where the right hand and left hand seemed distinct from one another. It was as if he was paying complete attention to each hand, turning this movement into an exercise in voicing or a fugue with distinct but overlapping sounds.

Kissin's performance of the Schubert was clearly well-received, but it was the series of Liszt pieces that was better suited to Kissin's grand gestures, his sense of drama, and his seemingly endless color palette. In Liszt's four transcriptions of Songs by Schubert, the Petrarch Sonnet, and the Mephisto Waltz, Kissin warmed his colors from the cold blues and grays of the Schubert to warm reds and yellows. In Staendchen, Kissin seemed to buy into the expansiveness of Liszt's writing, coaxing the audience along with "pull on your heart strings" taffy playing. Das Wandern was charming and clean--a game of very cute cat and mouse. Kissin's finger control was remarkable during this piece. Throughout the series of Liszt pieces, Kissin dashed off the complicated runs and arpeggios with ease and flare. He moved from the top to the bottom of the keyboard and then back to the top with unflinching confidence--a bona fide virtuoso.

The Petrarch Sonnet and Mephisto Waltz proved to be more evidence of Kissin's great technical abilities. His elbows were raised high in the Petrarch as if he was digging into meat and potatoes, yet his runs were like waterfalls--sparkling and tight-fingered cascades. These came off as show pieces, which turned out to be only a stepping-stone to the end of the concert.

Before an overwhelming standing ovation, Kissin made his strange set of soldier-like bows, turning in a circle like he was at a junior high dance so all of audience would receive his acknowledgement, appearing to be a very gracious performer. He would perform this ritual four times, playing a set of all-Liszt/Schubert encores: Schubert's Impromptu in G-flat major, a Schubert-Liszt Valse-Caprice, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody VI, and one of Liszt's Paganini Etudes. While four encores seemed excessive considering the somewhat uneven concert he played, the crowd adored Kissin and all of his strangeness.