Genuinely great performances are rare -- as rare, in fact, on the PBS series of that name as anywhere else.
Tonight's first telecast in the 23rd season of "Great Performances," however, captures a very great performance indeed. The concert, which was taped at the Oct. 5 gala opening of the Carnegie Hall season, features the Boston Symphony Orchestra; its music director, Seiji Ozawa; and the young Russian pianist Evegeny Kissin in a program of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique").
The Ozawa-Boston Pathetique is predictably splendid, but it's Kissin's Tchaikovsky Concerto, which is heard first on the broadcast, that deserves the designation "great."
Kissin, who turned 24 less than a week ago, is a former boy wonder who has grown into, perhaps, the finest pianist currently before the public. Certainly, in the Chopin and Russian repertory he has no equals.
Almost a dozen years ago, when a few copies of a live recording from Moscow of Chopin's two Piano Concertos (now reissued on BMG Classics) by the then-12-year-old Kissin began circulating in the West, it was clear that here was a child prodigy in a class with Yehudi Menuhin, Camille Saint-Saens and even Mozart.
His interpretation of the popular Tchaikovsky Concerto is likely to be remembered as warmly by future generations as listeners to day recall those of Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn and Sviatoslav Richter. Even on a television with limited sound reproduction, Kissin's tone is so lusciously warm as to be almost palpable and that his enormous, velvety sound is achieved without a hint of banging.
Even more remarkable are the pianist's range of colors. The positioning of his huge hands is extremely unorthodox -- his fingers sometimes seem as spidery as tentacles, sometimes as limp as cooked linguine -- but they create gradations of sound that can be likened to the mix of colors achieved by masters such as Manet. In the fast central episode of the slow movement, for example, Kissin's fingers create flawless, gossamer textures at a tempo that would have resulted in a train wreck for almost anyone else.
Every note this young man strikes revolves like a planet around the sun of his imagination; the best of it is that Kissin makes this thrice familiar piece sound not like an instrumental concerto linked by expertly crafted phrases, but as if it were an unbroken arc of spontaneous song.
Kissin's concert for "Great Performances" will air tonight at 9 p.m. on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).