Friday, October 2, 2009

This will tick off the Kissin fan club...

Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat; Schubert-Liszt: Four Songs; Liszt: Mephisto Waltz

Portentous Schubert and Stunning Liszt

By Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) -
See all my reviews (TOP 500 REVIEWER)

Evgeny Kissin's recording of Schubert's B-flat sonata begins at a crawling tempo that sounds like an attempt to imitate Sviatoslav Richter. One wonders if Kissin actually feels the music should go this way, or is dragging the tempo in order to seem "profound". (He includes the exposition repeat, which adds another five minutes to the proceedings.) In the development, Kissin briefly kicks up the tempo a bit. While this should seem to enliven the movement, his acceleration (which reverts back after the development), merely throws it off kilter. It's a mite schizoid.

The second movement fares even worse. Labeled an "andante sostenuto", it's played at a tempo that could be called an "adagio quasi largo." The problem with this tempo is not merely that it makes the music crawl, but it would have been unworkable on the pianos of Schubert's time: the music would have sounded dissociated due to the short sustaining power of the instrument. There's even a technical bauble at 6:26, surprising given how tightly edited Kissin's recordings are usually.

Kissin rips through the outer sections of the Scherzo, turning them into a Presto. He slows down for the Trio - - about the most normal playing to be found in this piece. The concluding movement zips along without incident, although there are some annoying cutesy-poo effects like playing legato chords as staccato. After the dragging of the first two movements, and the rushing of the third, it comes as an anticlimax.

If the former wunderkind Kissin wanted to prove he was mature by playing Schubert this way, he overshot the mark. Schubert is not merely a "winter wandered shadowed by death", there is joy and charm to be heard in his music as well - - even the late pieces. Kissin's Schubert is portentous and pretentious.

The song transcriptions fare a bit better. One secret to playing these pieces is to remember that they are not Schubert, but rather Schubert-Liszt. Both factors need to be respected. In Ständchen, Kissin holds his own against mighty rivals Rachmaninoff and Horowitz, but he is considerably less imaginative than either. He let's some color unfold in Wohin and Aufenthalt and the effect is like a flower blooming.

The high point of this disc is Liszt's Mephisto Waltz. This performance is an excellent example of how to build toward a climax: Kissin starts the piece rather coolly, with lighter than usual articulation and spare use of the sustaining pedal; about three minutes in, he slows down for the hypnotic, ruminative part - he's hold back, milking the music; about eight minutes in, Kissin goes into overdrive lets loose a fury of demonic passagework, bringing the piece to a resounding finish. This is one of the best Mephisto Waltzes I've ever heard - and I've heard many. I can only respond to such playing with a stunned "Wow."

Given how Sony/BMG is constantly repackaging recordings, this Mephisto is a candidate for a "Best of Kissin" disc. The unfortunate performance of the Schubert can be left behind. The sound is fine.

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