As anyone who has been around the music business any length of time can tell you, piano prodigies come and go, with very few demonstrating the staying power needed to sustain an extended solo career.
From all the evidence Evgeny Kissin appears to be one of the latter. With nine years of active concertizing behind him and seven of recording, he shows no sign of wearing out the welcome that is now his on both sides of the Atlantic - and Pacific, for that matter. And would you believe he is still only 19?The recorded evidence is in particularly abundant supply. In the wake of his triumphant Carnegie Hall debut last September (which launched that hall's 100th-anniversary season), RCA has issued a two-CD set of the recital itself. They have also put together another two-CD box, "Evgeny Kissin: A Musical Portrait," that incorporates all the concerto recordings he has made for that label so far, along with a newly issued Mozart K. 414.
Not to be outdone, Sony Classical has issued on both CD and laser video "Yevgeny Kissin in Tokyo," documenting the young Soviet pianist's 1987 recital in that city, hard on the heels of their laserdisc of their Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic 1988 New Year's Eve concert, which features Kissin as soloist in the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto. The same performance, one gathers, is also available on a recent Deutsche Grammophon CD, not yet heard by me. Nor have I heard MCA's contribution to the cause, a single CD from Russian masters of performances dating back to when the pianist was 12.
That's only a year younger than his age at the time of his earliest RCA recording, an all-Prokofiev CD whose Third Piano Concerto is included in the above-mentioned concerto box. Incendiary yet lyrical, it embodies most of the pianist's strengths, including a refusal to play anything for sheer effect, along with maybe his only real weaknesses, namely a lack of weight on the low end and an occasional shortage of wit and humor.
Those are very small complaints, however, when measured against the talent and musicality evident here. (The first may even be a fault of the recording, in this instance also from Russian masters.) Nor is there anything in the least immature about his conception of the music, although presumably age will bring even more insight and depth.
Indeed one already hears more wit in his scintillating Shostakovich First Concerto in the same box, a beautifully textured performance that captures the music's airier aspects along with its purposeful thrust (e.g., the ironic glint of the outer movements). Similarly, despite one or two obvious gestures, his Rachmaninoff Second from the same year, 1988, exhibits a solidly grounded romantic impulse and, in the finale, a fair amount of fire.
By contrast his Haydn (the D major Concerto, H. XVIII:11) and Mozart seem just a bit faceless. Yet the latter manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of most Russian Mozart, and in both concertos Kissin's natural way with a phrase and lovely sound fall very easily on the ear.
If the Tokyo and New York recitals are any indication, maturity is not everything, however. Witness the one work common to both, the Prokofiev Sixth Sonata. Although again a bit bass-shy, it is the 1987 performance I find the more electrifying, as opposed to the occasionally more ruminative Carnegie Hall account. (It is also better recorded.) At the same time the finale is perhaps even more stunning the second time around.
Nor would I want to be without the New York recital's other highlights, which for me include a poetic yet exciting Schumann Symphonic Etudes, with the posthumous variations unusually well integrated, and a remarkably brilliant Liszt "Rhapsodie Espagnole." By the same token Kissin's Schumann-Liszt ("Widmung") seems to me the standout among the encores.
But there is no shortage of highlights in the Tokyo recital either, especially Kissin's gorgeously colored Rachmaninoff ("Lilacs" and two of the Op. 39 "Etudes-Tableaux"), Scriabin and again Liszt, here two of the Three Concert Etudes, "La Leggierezza" and "Waldesrauschen."
For some reason on both the CD and the video master (but not the liner) the last is misidentified as "Un Sospiro." Also for some reason the laserdisc includes another Chopin Nocturne (the Op. 27, No. 1) not to be found on the CD. The latter, however, includes all three Japanese encores, only the first of which can be heard on the video - and that under the closing credits.
All of which inclines me toward the laserdisc, except perhaps for its $59.95 price tag, exorbitant even by current standards. It does, however, capture not only the sound of Kissin at the keyboard but the look. And given his obvious youth - remember, he was 16 at the time - that contrasts very effectively with the world-class artistry one hears coming over the loudspeakers.
The 1988 Karajan/BPO concert found the pianist another year older and even more inclined to roll his eyes apprehensively and rock himself back at arms' length from the keyboard. But there is no cause for apprehension in his performance of the Tchaikovsky, a spacious yet authoritative account of this most popular of all virtuoso keyboard concertos.
Perhaps the finale could have used more life, particularly from the orchestra (which here sounds a bit flabby). Kissin, however, manages to avoid pounding even in the bigger sections - of which there are plenty - combining brilliance and power with the same unforced musicality noted above.
On the other hand I think the Japanese video provides a better glimpse of his technique, even without the added interest of Karajan. That might have been more interesting were we allowed to see the conductor make his way on and off the stage, or ease himself into what looks to be a podium back rest. What we get instead is a sanitized view of that godlike figure, although the semilethargic Prokofiev "Classical" Symphony he presides over at the concert's outset suggests other ways in which the years may have taken their toll.
As I said, age isn't everything.