Evgeny Kissin: The Salzburg Recital – Berg, Chopin, Gershwin, Khrennikov – DG

by | Nov 12, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Evgeny Kissin: The Salzburg Recital – Piano Works by Berg, Chopin, Gershwin, Khrennikov (complete listing below) DG 486 2990 (2 CDs: 98:14) (7/2/22) [Distr. by Universal] *****: 

The date 14 August 2021 brought forth Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971) to the concert stage of the Great Festival Hall in Salzburg for a recital long anticipated and well attended, a direct antidote to the Covid crisis that had denied artist and audience the mutual pleasures of their company. In what some critics termed an “idiosyncratic” program, Kissin opens with three works in disparate, national styles, by the German Alban Berg. The Russian Tikhon Khrennikov, and the American George Gershwin.

Kissin begins with Alban Berg’s 1908 Piano Sonata (in B Minor), Op. 1, a one-movement work that exists as a unified whole. Some ascribe the evolution of the musical material of a basic leitmotif to Schoenberg’s “developing variation,” but Liszt might well provide the model, given his idea of “transformation of theme.” Kissin’s moderato tempo emphasizes the chromatic diversity of the piece, its whole tone scales and unstable key centers, tinged by a combination of angst, obsessive groping, and romantic yearning. Berg has compressed the exposition, development, and recapitulation into a style that anticipates much of Expressionism. Eminently moody, perhaps tragic, the sonata occupies a veiled, contrapuntal moment, an emotional enigma that Berg felt incapable of further development beyond its single movement. Schoenberg quipped to Berg, “Well, you’ve simply said all there was to say.”

Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007) still bears more notoriety than fame as the General Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers (1948-1991), who condemned many of his contemporaries as counter-revolutionary or guilty of an insensitive, decadent “formalism” detached from the emotional needs of the Russian people. Whether Khrennikov was in reality merely a dupe or a talented man coerced by Stalin and his political machine remains the subject of debate. Miaskovsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev bore much of the abuse of the denunciations hurled at them by Khrennikov’s various committees, yet Khrennikov’s own style, ironically, mimics aspects of Prokofiev in its percussion and angular lyricism. After the brief Dance, Kissin plays the 5 Pieces, Op. 5, brief, acerbic pieces for the most part, in a rhythmic style reminiscent of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The No. 3 Moderato communicates some poignancy, despite its parlando style. The No. 4 Andante proceeds in a modal syntax, heavy in mood, almost a bitter chorale that lightens the mood late, a kind of reconciliation. The final piece, Allegro vivace, enjoys a quick, skittish sensibility, more of an etude in sparkle and fleet, motion. It becomes quite canonic in its middle section, aggressively percussive as well. A brief pause, and the music is off and running again, in hectic, toccata figures.

The etiology of George Gershwin’s 1926 3 Preludes in jazz style seems to derive from his accompanying contralto Marguerite d’Alvarez in a series of recitals, which required some solo piano works to vary the program. Kissin provides lively renditions of each, without any ‘foreign accent,’ so they could rival the work of Earl Wild. The first Prelude in B-flat, sets a blues motif in five notes syncopated, much in the style of a Brazilian dance. Kissin makes us feel the effect of the barrage of flattened seventh chords. The most bluesy, the Prelude No. 2 in C# Minor, moves in a syntax in thirds, which in concert with the slow melody, creates from Kissin a soulful lullaby. For the Prelude No. 3 in E-flat Minor, Gershwin plays the key of E-flat against itself, major and minor. Kissin allots the piece its requisite dazzle, syncopated and insistent in its final rush to let the major mode win. 

The Chopin group of four pieces that concludes the formal presentation opens up with Kissin’s 1845 Nocturne in B, a tenderly wrought study in touches, legatissimo e sostenuto, enjoying a bel canto melodic line. Its middle section moves seamless to a distant A♭ major. The melody returns with the vocal effect mysterious and veiled, including florid trills and grace notes. The ensemble of Chopin’s first three Impromptus ensues, salon music raised to a sumptuously bravura level. The A-flat Major, Op. 29 (1837) resonates with shifts of color and a breathless trill that introduces the da capo. The sense of musical spontaneity extends into and then expands in the 1839 F# Major, Op. 36 demands more color in the poised, chordal progression that soon varies. Kissin invests a huge sonority into the middle, martial section that returns – first in the wrong key – only to extemporize even more floridly on the punctuations of the main theme. The 1842 Impromptu in G-flat Major remains perhaps the most delicately intricate, given Chopin’s evolving sense of combined polyphony and variation technique. The keyboard quite assumes a coloratura character under Kissin, and even the assorted runs flourish resoundingly in an athletically supple realization.  

Portrait of Chopin


Kissin addresses Chopin’s more directly dramatic purposes in two of the set of four Scherzos, of which the first three disabuse us of the notion that “scherzo” means “joke.” The critic Niecks wondered if the startling chordal attack at the opening measures of the 1834 B Minor Scherzo were not “a shriek of despair.”  The tragic turbulence breaks off, and Chopin inserts one of his few, direct quotations from a folk song, a noel called “Sleep, Jesus Sleep” as a trio section. The liquid carillon proceeds in a dream state under Kissin’s caressing figurations, only to become itself interrupted by the volcanic turmoil of the opening paroxysm, leading to a furiously chromatic coda of stunning power. 

The Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31 (1837), the third and longest of Kissin’s four encores, opens with a dramatic exchange between a whimpering, triplet figure and an explosive salvo of raw, piano resonance. Chopin called the sotto voce opening a question, receiving a declamatory response. Kissin then reaches into the extreme ends of the keyboard for an ecstatic exclamation, which Chopin transforms into a yearning, long-lined, lyrical melody (marked “con anima”) singing sonorously over a rippling, six-note accompaniment in the left hand. Schumann compared it to a Byronic poem, “so overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.” The Scherzo’s middle section suggests a quiet elegy, but gradually emerges from its introspection into a lilting three-step waltz, accompanied by a little duplet-triplet, waltz figure in the alto. This coy waltz tune builds up in urgency and layered sonority, so as to motivate the return of the dramatic musical gestures that opened the work. A coda pulls and tears at this material to lead it to a triumphant consummation in D flat major, the key to which it had been striving throughout Kissin’s colorful journey. Despite the whoops from the audience, that D-flat seems to carry over in sweet sonority to the final work of the concert, the fourth encore, Debussy’s long-beloved “Clair de lune” from his Suite bergamasque, composed in 1890 and revised in 1905. Kissin plays this nocturne quite slowly, caressing each chordal ensemble and nuanced transition with refined care. 

The Chopin who concludes the formal recital is the composer of the eternal 1843 “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, the very emblem of Polish nationalism. Needless to say, the resounding tropes of fervent resistance to tyranny bear an even heavier accent, given the current strife between Ukraine and Russia, and the audience quite literally erupts with joyous enthusiasm at the last chords. Another tender moment in D-flat Major from Felix Mendelssohn, his Andante con moto “Duetto,” Kissin’s first encore, sings without words of a purer, idyllic colloquy between persons and nations. 

If Vladimir Horowitz could delight us with his mischievous Danse excentrique, Evgeny Kissin achieves the same combination of shock and wit in his second encore, Dodecaphonic Tango, which maintains the tango element in the course of jarring, punishing dissonances. We hear the audience gasp a bit and then raise a tumult of appreciation. It’s been a mutual love-song throughout the evening, highly recommended.

—Gary Lemco

Evgeny Kissin: The Salzburg Recital:

BERG: Piano Sonata
KHRENNIKOV: Dance, Op. 5/3; 5 Pieces, Op. 2
GERSHWIN: Preludes for Piano
CHOPIN: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62/1; Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Impromptu No. 2 in F# Major, Op. 36; Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 51; Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20; Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 “Heroic”; Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31
MENDELSSOHN: “Duetto,” Op. 38/6
KISSIN: Dodecaphonic Tango, Op. 1/2
DEBUSSY: Clair de lune

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