The Hammerklavier must be the very hardest of all Beethoven’s late sonatas to bring off successfully. Everything in it threatens to tear the piece asunder. The sforzandi, the violence, the seemingly arbitrary changes of mood, the bare and broken octaves, the inevitable fugue, the minor key introspections, the prodigality of the musical invention. That Evgeny Kissin succesfully commanded our attention throughout, is an indication of the quality of musicianship and pianism that was here on last night. The first movement survives, I think, by how effectively lyrical second subject material is contrasted against the fanfare-like opening theme. Kissin is a master of soft tone and delicately weighted chords. You can see him shaping them before he plays them. So he was able to bring the requisite relaxation to these episodes where neccessary, and the contrast with the bravura. He’s clearly thinking all the time he’s playing. No high-class, polished, heartless run-through, everything had been thought out, hard and often: both from the point of view of pianism, and from the point of view of the musical architecture. It was clear that we were in the presence of a great musical mind hard at work, attempting to surmount a musical and pianistic Everest.
- The opening chords of the great Adagio, truly una corda, were, as they should be, suitably mournful and profound: the following offbeat cantilena almost painful phrased, the songful episodes in treble and bass later duly relished ,and the wonderful stellar melodies that follow, sung most plaintively over their softly weighted bass chords. You could hear a pin drop in the Parc de Florans, even above the cicadas, such was the audience’s rapt attention. The fugal last movement was a miracle: the initial three discarded outbursts winged miraculously to life and equally quickly discarded, the insane difficulties of the fugal writing, trills, runs, dischords and all somehow surmounted, not without effort, but in such a way as to make one very aware of Beethoven’s decision to break new ground musically in this piano sonata, without any concessions whatever to the performer or the audience. It was, I think, a masterly performance and received a warm and highly appreciative reception from an audience, many of whom, clearly, did not know the piece at all.
After Everest, so-to-speak, we were offered a most aristocratic and assured tour around Bald Hills. A selection of Rachmaninov Preludes from both the Op. 23 and Op. 32 set, beautifully executed, with real feeling for both the fearless bravura that is the sine qua non of this repertoire, and the introspective delicacy required in the more lyrical Preludes. Again there was much to admire and wonder at, not least Mr. Kissin’s phenomenal powers of concentration and stamina. Brought, quite rightly, to their feet the French audience demanded, as is their wont, with stamping, cheers and determined clapping, three encores. A Scriabin etude, tossed off with requisite legerdemain, a charming Beethoven Bagatelle, infused with devil-may-care insoucience and real charm, and a jazzy confection which, predictably, brought the house down.