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Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin looking up

Evgeny Kissin tonight celebrates the 150th birthday of Rachmaninov along with music by earlier keyboard legends – JS Bach, Mozart and Chopin.

In a programme crossing musical eras, Evgeny Kissin revels in the expressive possibilities of the piano and of his own imagination, beginning with JS Bach and ending with selected works by Rachmaninov to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth on 1 April 1873.

Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was regarded as a unique masterpiece in his own lifetime, a testament to his ability to push the boundaries of what was possible on the keyboard. The work is notable for its use of chromaticism, with a winding melody that meanders through unexpected key changes and harmonies to create a sense of musical drama that is both emotionally powerful and intellectually stimulating. The Fugue is a masterpiece of counterpoint, beginning with a section in which the fugue subject (or theme) appears in a number of different keys and permutations. It then moves through a series of episodes, each exploring new harmonies and textures while maintaining the intricate interplay of voices.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 9, K311, is, like the preceding piece, a fine example of a composer’s mastery of form. Composed in Mannheim in 1777, it demonstrates Mozart’s brilliance as a pianist and his unique ability to blend technical prowess with a broad range of moods and expression. The opening movement is joyful and exuberant, conjuring almost orchestral textures through sparkling keyboard figuration that sets the tone for the entire work. The slow movement is characterised by its lyricism, Mozart using harmony, counterpoint and syncopation to create a contemplative piece full of poignancy. A lively and energetic finale brings the sonata to a rousing conclusion with playfully virtuosic keyboard writing and some musical surprises along the way.

The mood changes as we move into the 19th century with a darkly hued work of heroism and patriotism, emotional depth and musical power. Chopin wrote his Polonaise in F sharp minor in 1841, and it reflects not only the composer’s love for his native Poland and its rich musical heritage, but also pays homage to the country’s past splendours, offering a sombre meditation on its tragic fate under Russian rule. It was dedicated to Princess Ludmilla de Beauveau, a prominent member of the Polish émigré community in Paris.

Out of a short menacing opening comes a defiant theme with hammering chords and rumbling trills which is answered by a series of less aggressive melodic fragments, sometimes appearing to calm the anger, or rising passionately across the keyboard. Suddenly the mood changes, heralding the start of the middle section. Here Chopin uses the mazurka dance form to provide contrast to the bold, energetic themes of the opening; creating writing full of rich harmonies and delicate melodies. But soon the violent polonaise material returns, with a final section full of dazzling runs, complex arpeggios and intricate textures. As this reprise seems about to fade into oblivion, Chopin closes the work with one final angry gesture – a fortissimo chord of octaves.

'Lilacs' is Rachmaninov’s own transcription of his setting for piano and voice of a poem by Ekaterina Beketova. This deeply expressive and intimate work highlights his exceptional abilities as both composer and pianist. A delicate melody, full of sensitivity and nuance, is enhanced by lush harmonies and elegantly wrought dynamics to create an emotional depth and intensity that reflects the pain and longing expressed in the original song. The middle section brings with it more intense and passionate musical language which builds to a powerful climax before subsiding into a tenderly reflective coda.

Rachmaninov published 24 Preludes for piano, covering all the major and minor keys, and collected into three opuses. The Prelude in A minor, Op 32 No 8, has a swirling drive, fleeting yet intensely dramatic, while the G flat major Prelude, Op 23 No 10, is leisurely, warm and lyrical.

Completed in 1917, the time of the Russian Revolution and the composer’s enforced exile, the Études-tableaux, Op 39, represent some of Rachmaninov’s most innovative, virtuosic and emotionally charged writing for solo piano. Like Chopin’s Études, the pieces make extensive technical demands on the pianist, while also offering characterful, beautiful and varied writing for the instrument. The result is a remarkable and innovative sequence, each one with its own distinctive character and emotional tone.

From the set of nine Evgeny Kissin performs six: the first, in C minor, is rapid and unsettled, with complex syncopation and endlessly surging climaxes. The second, in A minor, is nicknamed ‘The Sea and the Seagulls’ and has wistful outer sections whose plaintive falling figures perhaps evoke the seagulls’ cries. The fourth, in B minor, is a lively gavotte, full of harmonic colour, while the fifth, in E flat minor, is passionate, dark and sombre, but ends with a glimmer of hope. The sixth, in A minor, is often referred to as ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’ and – as befits its nickname – is by turns mysterious, menacing and aggressive. By contrast, the ninth, in which we finally reach a major key (D major), is a jubilant, bombastic march which brings the set to a rousing and satisfying conclusion.

© Frances Wilson

Programme and performers

Johann Sebastian Bach Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Sonata No 9 in D major
1. Allegro con spirito
2. Andantino con espressione
3. Rondeau: Allegro
Frédéric Chopin Polonaise No 5 in F sharp minor

Sergei Rachmaninov ‘Lilacs’ from 12 Romances, Op 21
Prelude in A minor, Op 32 No 8
Prelude in G flat major, Op 23 No 10
Études-tableaux, Op 39:
No 1 in C minor
No 2 in A minor
No 4 in B minor
No 5 in E flat minor
No 6 in A minor
No 9 in D major

Evgeny Kissin piano

Artist biography

Evgeny Kissin is revered the world over by audiences and critics alike for the virtuosity and eloquence of his pianism and the imagination and insight of his interpretations. He has worked with leading conductors, including Claudio Abbado, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph von Dohnányi, Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti and Seiji Ozawa.

He was born in Moscow in 1971 and began to play by ear and improvise on the piano at the age of 2. At 6, he enrolled at Moscow’s Gnessin School, where he received lessons from Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who became his only teacher. At the age of 10 he made his concerto debut with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K466 and he gave his first solo recital in Moscow a year later. His international breakthrough came in 1984, when he performed Chopin’s piano concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Moscow State Philharmonic conducted by Dmitri Kitaienko. This concert was recorded live by Melodiya, and a two-LP album was released the following year.

He made his debut in Eastern Europe in 1985, toured Japan the following year and appeared in Western Europe for the first time at the 1987 Berlin Festival. In 1988 Herbert von Karajan invited him to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic at the orchestra’s forthcoming New Year’s Eve Concert, which was released on DG. He gave his first performance at the BBC Proms in 1990 and made his North American debut soon after, performing Chopin’s two piano concertos with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. He opened Carnegie Hall’s centennial season in September 1990 with a debut recital, the live recording of which proved an exceptional success.

This season he returns to the Vienna Philharmonic under Jakub Hrůša, London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle and the Hamburg and Warsaw Philharmonic orchestras under Kent Nagano and Andrey Boreyko respectively. He also undertakes a recital tour with Renée Fleming, a solo tour of which tonight’s concert is part and participates in a gala concert honouring the memory of Andrei Sakharov at Carnegie Hall.

The newest addition to his award-winning discography is an album of Beethoven piano sonatas on DG, with which he signed an exlusive contract in 2017. His previous recordings have received numerous awards and accolades, having contributed significantly to the library of masterpieces recorded by the world’s greatest performers. His discography also includes Grammy Award-winning recordings of Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 and a disc of solo works by Scriabin, Medtner and Stravinsky; other highlights include Beethoven’s piano concertos under Colin Davis; and discs of solo works by Brahms, Chopin and Schumann. He was also the subject of a documentary film by the late Christopher Nupen: Evgeny Kissin: The Gift of Music.

He has received awards and tributes from around the world, including an Honorary Doctorate of Music by the Manhattan School of Music; the Shostakovich Award, one of Russia’s highest musical honors; an Honorary Membership of the Royal Academy of Music; and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the Hong Kong University.