Evgeny Kissin, Beethoven

Piano Sonatas Nos 3, 14, 23, 26 & 32, Diabelli Variations
Evgeny Kissin p
DG 4797581 (2CD)

Evgeny Kissin has recorded very little Beethoven. I only know of a Sony disc of Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 5, the complete Concertos with Colin Davis, the Choral Fantasy with Abbado, and the Moonlight Sonata in a mixed recital on a 1998 RCA disc. In an article in Limelight, Kissin said it was time to release his recent solo Beethoven performances. These live concert recordings, taped in various venues between 2006 (Sonata Op. 2, No 3) and 2016 (No 23, Appassionata), are issued under the pianist’s new contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

The set enables us to hear where Kissin’s pianism sits these days. He burst onto the scene as a wunderkind, with a fully developed virtuoso technique. This is still part of his make-up, as you can hear from the fluidity in the outer movements of Op. 81a, Les Adieux. The Russian school is also a continuing influence, with its attributes of strength and power. You can hear it in the uncompromising bass of the Andante con moto movement of the Appassionata, and also in the emphatic octave passage in the otherwise stately second movement of the Moonlight Sonata.

So far so Old School, but Kissin (like all contemporary pianists) can hardly be unaware of historically informed practice. This influence creeps into the mix at appropriate moments, where a lightness and clarity somewhat at odds with traditional Russian pianism informs his musical choices––notably in the classical lines of Sonata Op. 2, No 3. I’m a sucker for early Beethoven and instantly fell in love with Kissin’s warm, witty performance of this work. Quite rightly, he takes a more Romantic view of the great Sonata No 32, Op. 111, but stops short of barnstorming in the first movement, and is deeply and satisfyingly introspective in the second. This is a commanding and mature performance.

He is more atmospheric, more invested, in the first movement of the Moonlight now than he was in the studio 20 years back. The final Presto agitato was always tremendously exciting – no classical restraint here – but the music has an extra manic edge in the later performance. (That RCA disc is still worth getting for his dazzling Brahms Paganini Variations.) A downside of these live recordings is the amount of audience shuffling and background hiss at the opening of the Moonlight and Appassionata Sonatas. Once the performances get underway, however, such issues are quickly forgotten.