Marathon finish for masterful Evgeny Kissin

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The last several days have brought a feast of major-league piano playing to Symphony Center, courtesy of keyboard virtuosos born 30 years apart.

And while differences in training, repertory and temperament separate Maurizio Pollini and Evgeny Kissin, I found fascinating points of similarity between Pollini's performance of a Mozart concerto with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week, and the recital Kissin presented in sold-out Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Along with sovereign technique and complete mastery of the keyboard, the Italian pianist and his younger Russian colleague share an ability to invest everything they play with the utmost thoughtfulness and musical integrity. Neither Pollini nor Kissin traffics in showmanship for its own empty sake. Each is a serious, thoroughgoing musician whose immaculately controlled readings may sometimes err on the side of emotional containment but convey enormous musical depth.

So it was at Kissin's recital Sunday. Previous appearances by this formidable artist focused on the Romantic piano literature. This time around, he concentrated on Viennese classical repertory by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Not until Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C sharp minor at the end of the program did the pianist indulge the crowd with the expected burst of pyrotechnics.

His pairing of a Haydn piano sonata (E flat major, H.XVI:49) with Beethoven's final sonata (No. 32 in C minor, Opus 111) proved apt, since his searching account of the slow movement of the Haydn work demonstrated the kinship Haydn's abrupt harmonic shifts have with Beethoven's. Throughout the Haydn, Kissin's playing was a model of vigor, fluidity and perfectly regulated fingerwork. And his crisp articulation showed an appreciation of Papa Haydn's dry wit.

Kissin's Beethoven was more controversial, though certainly not on technical grounds. How many other pianists give those grand, annunciatory chords that open the two-movement piece the finely judged weight he brought to them? How many are able to make each line of Beethoven's polyphony register so distinctly, and with such firmness of tone and rhythm?

But while the arietta brought much raptly beautiful playing, it plodded at times, missing the poetic transcendence great Beethoven pianists of an older generation brought to it. Perhaps Kissin's concentration was disrupted by the undercurrent of coughing, sneezing and ringing cellphones.

The rewards were more consistent in the four Schubert Impromptus (D. 935 and 899) with which he launched the second half of his program.

You had only to hear how deftly he set the melodic line against the left-hand accompaniment to the F minor impromptu, or the unaffected simplicity with which he spun the variations of the B flat major, to recognize you were in the presence of one of today's master Schubert interpreters. A kind of faux sonata when presented in sequence, the four pieces constitute a garden of Schubertian delights Kissin tended with all manner of graceful insights.

When it comes to Liszt, this artist can roar, gallop and sing with the best of them. His account of that composer's C sharp minor Hungarian Rhapsody was an object lesson in impeccable pianistic control wedded to swashbuckling brilliance, in a recognizably Russian manner. Not only did he dispatch the fast pages as fast as they can possibly be played, but the leonine power he unleashed at the final peroration was something Orchestra Hall hasn't heard very often since the heyday of Horowitz.

Noel Coward's famous quip about the potency of cheap music certainly applies to this Liszt work, but by embracing its vulgarity rather than trying to intellectualize it, Kissin did indeed make the score feel potent rather than cheap.

Naturally the crowd leapt to its feet, clapping and cheering before breaking into rhythmic applause. Trading his serious mien for a tight smile, Kissin kept the audience hanging on before delivering his encores. There were four in all, a marathon that lasted some 30 minutes and included some of his finest pianism of the afternoon: Giovanni Sgambati's arrangement of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," from Gluck's "Orpheus and Euridice"; Liszt's "Transcendental Etude" in F minor; Liszt's arrangement of Schubert's "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"); and Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein

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