BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3; 32 Variations on an Original Theme in c minor, WoO 80; 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 – Evgeny Kissin, piano – DGG 479 7581 (2 CDs) 55:40; 73:14 (9/8/17) [Distr. by Universal] *****: 

Evgeny’s Kissin’s Beethoven exploration, 2006-2016, reveals a mature thinker in music with ideas of his own.

Russian virtuoso Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971) has assembled performances of Beethoven he deems significant in his artistic development, culled from various sources, 2006-2016.  Indeed, the musicality revealed in these performances bespeaks a thoughtful, matured artist, for whom restraint and tasteful execution has become an integral part of a technical arsenal that had already achieved bravura status. Kissin opens from Seoul, 2006, with the 1795 Sonata in C Major, a clear, often bold, statement of the composer’s virtuosic ambitions, even as it experiments with a narrow melodic tessitura, based on conjunct intervals. The placement of the second subject in g minor must have raised eyebrows and ears; even more, the music returns in c minor.  When Beethoven adds a somber cadenza into the recapitulation, he seems to have erased the line between sonata and concerto.

The Adagio in E Major allows Kissin to explore the more intimate side of Beethoven, here in a rather improvisatory movement that subdivides into five parts. The music assumes a more swirling, arpeggiated character, in the tonic minor, and the bass becomes ominous.  The essentially ternary motion returns to the right hand arpeggios and bass octaves, but Beethoven digresses for a moment into C Major of movement one. Syncopated, contrapuntal play marks the Scherzo, with the delicate but pungent staccato notes’ jabbing at our complacency, only to be dispersed by brilliant rolling filigree. The Trio in minor packs its own turbulence, but Beethoven makes his coda an exercise in harmonic ambiguity that leaves us in an uneasy limbo. The Allegro assai last movement exudes cheery confidence much in late-Haydn style, brilliant in its percussion and its soft trills and pregnant silences.

The 1807 32 Variations in c minor derive from a 2007 recording in Montpelier.  Beethoven proffers an excursion into the antique form of a chaconne in eight bars that the composer will subject to any number of permutations of rhythm, texture, and color. Incredibly concentrated, each variant could have been a bagatelle on its own, often rife with explosive gestures. Variation 9 seems to hint at much of what Schumann accomplishes in his Op. 13 Symphonic Etudes. Scale patterns abound, often tied to legato slurs and then the figures invert.  The music accelerates in the late variations until Variation 23 (pianissimo), where time seems suspended, except in the bass rhythm.  For the grand finale, Kissin surges forward from the penultimate variant into 32nd notes fast and furiously, slowing down, and then building to Herculean, resounding coda that ends relatively softly.

The “Moonlight” Sonata (1801) from Carnegie Hall, 2012 seems a natural vehicle for Kissin’s new, “experimental” attitude. The Adagio sostenuto itself explores the dynamic and rhetorical shifts contained in a simple arpeggio. The playing proceeds at a deliberately, molded pace, inflected but without guile or rhetorical excess. The light, plastic Allegretto and Trio proceed in classical repose. Kissin’s Presto agitato catches fire, a tiger whose time has come. A virtual toccata, the music delivers a shattering impact, jarring and poignant, at once.

From the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (2016), Kissin plays a studied, deliberated Allegro assai to begin Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (1805), which for many literally defines the febrile drama in Beethoven’s piano music. Opening with an f minor triad, the music intones a Neapolitan character, rushing through tumultuous emotions, sounding the ubiquitous “fate” motif through its course. The convulsive nature of the music embraces huge silences as well as gust of spread dynamic motion, exploiting the keyboard’s relatively new addition of upper registers. Kissin’s driven bass line and his expressive trill and to the fervent energy of the progression, easily reminiscent of such lauded colleagues Arrau and Richter. The tenor of Kissin’s first movement, however, embrace the tender lyricism – often in D-flat – that endures despite the torrents that surround it, as if the music had becomes an extension of Shelley’s “West Wind.”

The soft application of D-flat Major invites us to the wonderful theme and variations of the Andante con moto, which Kissin first sounds somewhat pesante, a funereal affect. The subsequent variants embrace a subtle degree of agitation – as well as ornamental lyricism in half steps—that have beguiled this listener ever since both Serkin and Casadesus realized the movement for my youth. The soothing D-flat harmonization at the last variant merely sets up (via a diminished seventh), ironically, the mad dance that defines the Allegro ma non troppo.  Some kind of frenetic downpour may have inspired this music—perhaps the onrush of high tide—for it seems that with each repetition of the running motion Kissin himself becomes more inflamed. A sense of improvisation no less informs the progression, with its sudden descent into soft dynamics that again build to an inexorable fate. And even beyond the sheer physical demands already imposed, Beethoven adds a sforzato coda in syncopation with its own presto-paced f minor triads in the bass. Kissin, all credit to him, realizes a fluid, intensely unified vision, articulate and poetical as it is dramatic. The audience, hushed and breathless throughout, has at the final, apocalyptic cadence, the release it has sought from the first notes.

From Vienna, the city in which Beethoven conceived his 1808 Les Adieux Sonata, Kissin (2006) delivers this most personal of Beethoven’s keyboard works, meant to celebrate Archduke Rudolf and Prince Kinsky’s generous offer to the composer of a lifetime income. The slow, wistful opening three notes, literally signifying “Lebewohl,” farewell, eventually jump in consecutive thirds and pungent staccato figures. Kissin’s sensitive rendition highlights the pained, sometimes liquid, affection that flows from the composer’s grateful spirit. The succeeding Abwesenheit, absence, compounds the emotional travail in dotted notes – set as two groping, contrasting themes. Beethoven’s Das Wiedersehen movement, The joyful return, abounds in happy exuberance, vacillating between G-flat and F Major.  Kissin imparts this music a carillon quality, literally chimes of thanksgiving. Having recently reviewed the happy recording by Jascha Spivakovsky of this illuminated music, the Kissin version comes as a delightful sequel. Had Spivakovsky Kissin’s sonics – here, Recording Engineer Anton Reininger – the two readings would be eminently competitive.

The towering, imposing mass, the Sonata No. 32 in c minor, Op. 111 (1822) Kissin grants to us in a recital from Verbier, 2013.  The work – which has much in common with Bach—condenses traditional form and idiosyncratic counterpoint to an agonizing atom of experience. The opening movement Maestoso-Allegro con brio ed appassionato addresses extreme tensions and diametrically combative textures. The momentum gathers itself up, only to relent and then reassert its tragic, multi-layered will. Kissin’s sheer velocity takes me back to the similar onrushes produced by Backhaus, Arrau, Haskil, and Michelangeli. Somehow, amidst all the subjective and intricate labyrinth of sound, moments of joyful emerge, perhaps the greatest of mysteries in this musical enigma.

Commentators always look for metaphysical, Gnostic declarations in assessing the long Arietta. Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.  Richard Wagner may have best expressed the Beethoven experience when he wrote that, in Beethoven, “every musical element becomes melody.” The gentle dance character persuades us to follow the composer into the intricacies of a synoptic consciousness, exercising what Kissin calls “the best kind of psychotherapy.” That the incredibly intense pulverizations of motifs and rhythmic impulses retain their cosmic dance remains one of the many miracles of Kissin’s fine rendition. Suffice it to say that, by journey’s end, we are willing to concede—as had once been deemed of Artur Schnabel—that Kissin has evolved from a fiery pianist into a thoughtful musician.

—Gary Lemco