Is the Russian virtuoso really the “greatest pianist in the world”?

Evgeny Kissin plays Liszt
Brisbane Festival
QPAC, September 11 

The advertisements for Evgeny Kissin’s Australian tour scream that he is “the greatest pianist in the world”. Although this hyperbole is probably unendorsed by Kissin himself, his Australian debut at the Brisbane Festival proves he is certainly the greatest to make the trip in recent years. And by the time Kissin had tossed off his first piece, the shimmering Ricordanza from the Transcendental Etudes, you knew you were in the presence of a great tradition of piano music – a tradition that begins with Sergei Rachmaninov, runs through Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels and now lives in the fingers of such prodigious virtuosi as Mikhail Pletnev, Grigory Sokolov and Kissin.

For the Liszt bicentenary, Kissin has been hawking this all-Liszt program around the world, most recently in Los Angeles. The linchpin of the concert is the B minor Sonata, which in Kissin’s hands becomes a thrilling, varied narrative. It’s a tough piece to hold together – 30 minutes of non-stop Lisztian knottiness, with moments of tenderness giving way to pure Romantic thunder. For sheer braun, only the ursine Sokolov can come close to Kissin’s performance. In the triple fortes, Kissin got angry, punching the piano mercilessly with a flurry of octaves. Some of the major-key lyrical sections were lacking in focus: Kissin seemed to be tuning in for the frenetic Mephistophelian whirl, but tuning out for the seduction scenes and post-coital reverie. Still, it was a Liszt Sonata to rate with the most ardently expressive on record. 
The second half of the concert delved gradually into the composer’s more obscure works. Funerailles is Liszt at his most experimental – a highly chromatic and sombre work imbued with a sense of mourning for three of his friends who died in the Hungarian uprising of 1848. This and the following Vallée D’Obermann were marvellously vivid, the pianist painting grand tableaux of sound with his eloquent rubato, keen sense of tone colour and total mastery of Liszt’s virtuosic challenges.
The final Venezia i Napoli suite is a dazzling three-part showpiece that toys with Italian folk themes, hurling them from one end of the piano in the whirl of arpeggios that is Liszt’s compositional trademark. Kissin handled these with an astonishing lightness of touch and a gravity that the works, perhaps, do not entirely merit.
Which leads to the big question raised by Kissin’s concert can you have too much Liszt in one evening? On the strength of his program, at least, the answer is yes. There were no large-scale works with differing movements, and thus not much variation in style, especially after interval. Each Liszt piece is a showstopper designed to wow the crowd. Put it all together and it’s like three courses of dessert. 
But still the audience at QPAC was greedy for encores, and Kissin gave the lyrical Liszt everyone wanted to hear – the arrangement of Schumann’s Widmung; a piece I didn’t recognise; then the Liebestraum. Standing as they applauded, the crowd simply wouldn’t let the guy get back to his dressing room. 
Kissin must have returned to the stage at least ten times. On each occasion he would walk to the piano in exactly the same robotic manner, with exactly the same expression on his face, bow to the waist, and give none of the usual cues to the audience (a nod, or two hands clasped together) as to whether he wanted to play more. It was very odd. 
Altogether Kissin’s stage manner was fraught with awkwardness. While playing, his face contorts so much it looks like his tongue is trying to escape from his closed mouth. His fixed smile to the crowd is more sinister than friendly, and his meticulous concert attire looks more funereal than dapper. When good looks and stage charisma are becoming more and more crucial in a concert career, Kissin certainly bucks the trend. How? It’s simple: when he plays, you forget about anything but the music…

Evgeny Kissin also plays his all-Liszt program at the Sydney Opera House on September 15. View event details here.

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