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 Recording of the Week  Evgeny Kissin performs Beethoven piano sonatas

As my colleague Chris mentioned in his recent round-up of forthcoming releases, the next few months will bring an embarrassment of riches in terms of new recordings of piano music. Two of those discs are released today, including music by Brahms from Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire (containing a magisterial account of the Third Piano Sonata, Op. 5, half a century after he made his recording debut with the same piece in 1967). However, as impressive a disc as that is, I have instead chosen to focus on a stunning selection of Beethoven piano sonatas by Evgeny Kissin.

Evgeny Kissin
Evgeny Kissin

This 2-disc set marks Kissin's return to Deutsche Grammophon after twenty-five years, and offers live recordings from the last decade, ranging from 2006 performances in Vienna and Seoul to an account of the Appassionata sonata in Amsterdam last year. We kick off with the C major sonata, Op. 2 No. 3; in some respects it’s quite a “straightforward” reading, in that Kissin doesn’t pull it about too much, but this directness adds to its appeal. What this sonata shows, though, is the dual essence of what I think makes his playing remarkable: a combination of absolute clarity and precision in the faster passagework (witness the mini-cadenza shortly before the end of the first movement of this sonata, or turn to the last movement of the Moonlight sonata to hear a virtuosic barrage of semiquavers!) with an astonishing ability to vary his tone from the stormiest, heaviest onslaught to the most tender of sounds within an instant.

There are so many examples of this: the introspective, beautifully articulated account of the Adagio from Op. 2 No. 3, for instance, or the utterly mesmerising middle movement of the Op. 81a sonata (known as Les Adieux). Where it comes most to the fore, though, is during the mighty Op. 111. The second movement is really rather extraordinary - such is the range of dynamics and tone that at some moments it sounds almost as if Kissin has seamlessly switched to a different piano with an infinitely softer touch, and then back again! So great is his control that he can even give us different tones simultaneously: when the main theme returns about five minutes from the end, the theme itself is played with a slightly harder attack, whilst the accompanimental figurations are given a more gentle treatment.

Alongside these five sonatas, Kissin has included a performance of the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, and as wonderful as the sonata performances are, in many ways for me this is the highlight of the set. Notwithstanding the initial Allegretto indication of the theme itself, none of the variations is given a tempo marking, and yet Kissin seems to find just the right speed for each one, balancing a demonstration of his virtuosity against a dazzling array of moods, textures, and articulations. It’s a real showpiece, with nowhere to hide in terms of technique. He brings freedom to his playing, and puts just as much care into the “easier” variations (such as the delicate thirteenth variation) as he does into the flashier ones.

As I mentioned before, these are all live recordings, and so in the interests of full disclosure I should mention that as well as the richly-deserved applause there is also a very occasional cough audible from an audience member, and an even more occasional grunt from (I assume!) Kissin, but I can only humbly urge you not to let that matter when the performances are as fine as these. I understand that Kissin personally selected which recordings should be included, and in every single case it's abundantly clear exactly why each one made the final cut on this outstanding collection.

Evgeny Kissin: Beethoven

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC