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Kissin reasserts his supremacy; Music: Even after avoiding the composer's work for a while, pianist Evgeny Kissin proves he can play Chopin like no one else; Fine Arts


Three years ago, pianist Evgeny Kissin took an apparently self-imposed sabbatical from the music of Chopin.

Perhaps he was tired of being identified as a Chopin player -- pianist Martha Argerich had all but anointed Kissin as the greatest living Chopin player when he was just a 12-year-old -- and of the consequent critical carping about his interpretive insights into other composers.

In appearances over the last three seasons, therefore, Kissin has been busy demonstrating that, no matter what the repertory, he casts as large a shadow as any pianist alive.

His all-Chopin program in New York's Carnegie Hall Saturday evening established in no uncertain terms, however, that the Kissin doctrine is still in effect. As long as Kissin is around, other pianists venture into Chopin's waters at their own risk.

And considering that the Russian-born pianist is still only 27, he's likely to be around for a long time.

Only a few pianists have ever played the composer's 24 preludes so convincingly and so comprehensively.

While these pieces traverse all the major and minor keys, they are hard to hold together. Most are short and improvisatory in character.

A work like the C-sharp minor Prelude, which takes only a few seconds to play, glints briefly and vanishes.

Some are lyric, some heroic and some, such as the strange, morbid and dissonant A Minor Prelude, sound as enigmatic today as they must have to the composer's contemporaries.

In his control of tension and relaxation, and in his ability to evoke the relationships between these aphoristic works, Kissin painted upon a gigantic canvas. Yet, at the same time, he was able to explore each as if it were a miniature cosmos.

Some of the readings were unconventional. The famous Prelude in D-flat (the so-called "Raindrop") emerged with startling vividness.

By taking a somewhat quicker tempo than usual, Kissin made the remorseless repetition of the A-flats in the left hand, which counter the lovely opening melody in the right hand, convey an almost insane, Mussorgsky-like compulsiveness.

The explosions of the subsequent B-flat Minor Prelude, therefore, sounded inevitable. This performance was one of the pianist's particular triumphs; the tempo was incredibly fast and fierce, with the spread left-hand extended chords creating unsurpassed passion and wildness.

As exciting as he is in fast, loud music, Kissin may be even better in slow, lyrical works such as the "Barcarolle," which followed immediately after intermission. Plenty of the pianists' contemporaries can play up a storm. But Kissin's abilities to play so softly for a great length of time, to maintain clarity of texture and absolute adherence to rhythmic detail, may be unique.

The results in the "Barcarolle" were magical.

The Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor ("Funeral March"), which concluded the printed program, was staggering, perhaps inimitable, in its force. The first movement conveyed the whole range of its fervent emotions without a hint of exaggeration. The fierce treatment of the second movement introduced an element of technical risk that made the performance all the more exciting. How Kissin negotiated the tricky figurations in the outer parts of the scherzo with such ridiculous ease is a mystery to which only he knows the answer.

The "Funeral March" of the third movement was tremendous. The suggestions of keening brass and timpani strokes had an impressive proximity. The unearthly trio, taken at a slow tempo that revealed the pianist's mastery of the sustaining pedal, made members of the audience weep. The finale, a Walpurgisnacht of half-heard cries and whispers, was unforgettable.

The encores included performances of two Chopin waltzes, the "Winter Wind" Etude and the A-flat Polonaise. The latter was powerfully characterized enough -- each of the entries had its own individual bite -- to leave New Yorkers talking about it for years to come.

Starker's sonatas

It was a bit of a comedown to return to Baltimore on Sunday evening to hear Janos Starker's cello recital in the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

Starker's position as one of the great string players of the last 50 years is incontestable, but he was not at his best on this occasion. His performances of the Brahms Sonatas in E Minor and F Major, while containing many beautiful details, were somewhat sleepy-sounding, as were his performances of two sonatas by J.S. Bach, originally composed for cembalo and viola da gamba.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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