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Kissin’s Beethoven: Diverse Venues, Variable Interpretations

Jed Distler

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

For his first solo Beethoven release Evgeny Kissin offers a selection of live recordings dating between 2006 and 2016. The Op. 2 No. 3 sonata’s opening movement receives a straightforward yet rather regimented reading. Kissin underlines the Scherzo’s imitative writing well, but without the winged élan of pianists as diverse as Rubinstein and Goode. The Finale’s brilliant articulation is compromised by contrived taperings and other expressively unctuous gestures. However, the Adagio is eloquently sustained and shaped.

Kissin views the 32 Variations from an essentially pianistic perspective, where technical bravura takes priority over creating unified tempo relationships from one variation to the next. It’s a valid approach, providing that one has the fingers to bring it off, as Kissin unquestionably does. At the same time, the slower variations contain their fair share of lily gilding and tricky chord voicings.

The “Moonlight” sonata fares best in Kissin’s vehement Finale, where Carnegie Hall’s ambience underlines the dynamic contrasts to more intense effect than in Kissin’s relatively flattened out early 1990s RCA studio recording. The affetuoso touches in the first two movements are relatively contained in the studio version, yet more pronounced live. Kissin’s overly dramatized first-movement tempo contrasts in the “Appassionata” sound forced, as opposed to the demonic momentum of, say, Richter’s similarly freewheeling conception. Kissin is pianistically oriented in the central variations; he stretches out the theme, he speeds up for the first variation, he highlights inner voices in the second variation, and basically sidesteps the music’s unfolding continuity. But the finale snaps into focus with power, assertion, and a formidable left hand presence.

The “Les Adieux” sonata’s outer movements abound with such strong character and textural clarity that Kissin’s tempos appear faster than they actually are. Kissin embraces Op. 111’s large-scale terrain with earnestness and seriousness of purpose. Although his clipped articulation in the first movement’s fugal writing following the exposition’s second ending borders on triviality, Kissin’s broad pacing of the Arietta allows for assiduously unified tempo relationships between variations. Some of his expressive pointing, to be sure, comes close to loosening the music’s cumulative grip, in contrast to Pollini’s taut reserve. Perhaps Kissin works too hard to show that he is serious, yet he’s unquestionably working!

All of the performances are culled from archival material recorded in different venues under diverse technical conditions, and the sonics prove just as variable as Kissin’s interpretations.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Op. 2 No. 3: Rubinstein (RCA); Op. 27 No. 2: Serkin (Sony), Op. 57: Richter (RCA); Op. 81a: Goode (Nonesuch), Op. 111: Pollini (DG)

    Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major Op. 2 No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 (“Moonlight”); Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 (“Appassionata”); Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”); Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111; 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80

    Soloists: Evgeny Kissin (piano)

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