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Architectural dimensions

JOHN BELL YOUNG listens
to Evgeny Kissin's Mussorgsky


RCA    09026-63884

Evgeny Kissin - Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. © 2002 RCA

A child prodigy, Evgeny Kissin, like Mozart, was pretty much unimpeachable for several years. As a ten year old, and through his teens, he dazzled the public with his fleet and flawless fingers, ardent lyricism and musical maturity. Great conductors, such as Karajan, recognized the spark of genius in the boy and wasted no time engaging him with major symphony orchestras. More remarkable still is that Kissin accomplished all this without ever having won a major -- or even a minor -- international competition.

How time flies. Now thirty, Kissin continues to astound with his magisterial technique and the pouty, bad-hair-day demeanor that has long since become his trademark. But to judge from this recording, his playing, though still articulate, mechanically impeccable and interpretively rigorous, has grown cold and brutal. It is as if he has somehow disconnected from the emotional content of the music itself. Given his authority and status, this may well be a deliberate turn of events, a statement of sorts for reasons that no one but Mr Kissin himself can fathom.

If Mussorgsky had one objective in his popular Pictures at an Exhibition, it was to codify, in musical gestures indigenous to his native language, the characteristic rhythms and cadences of Russian speech. His evocation of Russian peasant life, and the hardy people who embody it, is nowhere more present than in this lengthy work comprised of some sixteen individual character pieces. Mr Kissin blazes note-perfectly and at warp speed, for example, through the otherwise chatty, but delicate Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, compromising its poetic sense and eviscerating it of all charm. Here and elsewhere, he ignores Mussorgsky's infatuation with musical declamation, and all the subtlety of inflection it engenders, settling instead for a kind of perpetual pianistic shouting that more often than not degenerates into relentless banging. Indeed, by the time he reaches the majestic Great Gate of Kiev, which draws the work to its magniloquent conclusion, he has already run out of steam, unable to play any louder than he already has.

Granted, Mr Kissin's prevailing interest these days is clearly in the architectural dimensions of a work. That's commendable, but when so totally divorced from poignancy, quiescence, and tenderness of expression, what remains is the ruthless, disengaged consciousness of a war camp commandant, eager to make sure that no prisoner escapes. That much is true, too, in Mr Kissin's belligerent romp through Bach-Busoni's Toccata, and to a stillborn, arid reading of Balakirev's wistful arrangement of Glinka's The Lark. Evidently Mr Kissin has some private war he hopes to win. Whatever that may be, let's hope that he moves beyond such pugilistic piano playing and learns that, in the scent of a single rose, blossoms a universe of affect, idea and vision.

Copyright © 27 July 2002 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA

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Evgeny Kissin - Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

09026-63884 DDD Stereo NEW RELEASE 2002 RCA

Evgeny Kissin, piano

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an exhibition; Bach-Busoni: Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564; Glinka arr Balakirev: The Lark

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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Saturday series of shorter CD reviews