Evgeny Kissin knows how to put on a recital. The renowned Russian pianist has tread across performance stages since his career began as a young prodigy. At 50 years old, his hair may be lightly streaked with gray, but Kissin’s palms have weathered seasons of performances, moving with the smooth magic of a legend who understands the swirls and storms that pattern his pieces.
Kissin graced the stage of Davies Symphony Hall on a brisk San Francisco night to perform a recital spanning mood and musical epochs, culminating in an explosion of Chopin. Many big-name performers specialize in romantic-era pieces, but Kissin isn’t swept up in thunderous, grandiose displays of talent. Though the pianist plays with obvious and illustrious virtuosity, his style is more suited toward the likes of Chopin than Liszt. Burning with a quiet intensity, Kissin inspires pathos first, then awe.
The pianist arrived at Davies Symphony Hall in a dapper monochrome suit, sporting an earnest smile as his patent shoes glinted under the warm spotlight. Wearing a knowing smile, Kissin opened the concert with J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” — an intensely driven work intended for the organ, with dramatic flourishes that leave a blister.
“Toccata” comes from the Italian word toccare, or to touch, and it refers to a type of piece that spotlights the performer’s technical prowess. Kissin seemed to peck the keys in the toccata’s opening, gradually getting both physically and musically comfortable in Davies Symphony Hall.
Yet, this clouded beginning quickly dissolved, and the sound evolved from a purr to a roar. Kissin lured the audience into a fog-like trance with his rhythmic drive and stormy arpeggios. The fugue marked a triumph in balance as Kissin expertly layered Bach’s voices, particularly demonstrating the twinkling beauty of the inner harmonies. The dynamics undulated like waves, and the arc of the piece unspooled like a thread of pearlescent gossamer.
Moving from baroque to classical, Kissin conjured the ache of night as it pales to day with Mozart’s emotional “Adagio in B minor” and Beethoven’s “Sonata in A-flat major.” Neruda wrote that certain dark things are meant to be loved “in secret, between the shadow and the soul,” and Kissin transformed Davies into this liminal space, coaxing a shadowed yet intimate mood through Mozart’s suspensions and diminished sevenths. He pried open the shutters of dark chromaticism to welcome the lambent beams of B major, a warm contrast to his left hand’s deep, rich tones. The sense of brightness continued to flow into Beethoven’s structurally regimented sonata, where Kissin unlatched a sublime downpour of expressiveness.
Beyond technical dexterity, the pianist’s most poignant weapon proved to be his sensitivity. As Kissin moved through the program, jumping from titan to titan, he played with supple luminescence. He nimbly siphoned Romantic pathos from complicated Baroque counterpoints and Classical harmonic structures, a subtle yet incredibly challenging feat that underscores his care for each piece’s composition.
After the intermission, Kissin’s recital anchored itself in Chopin. The pianist embarked on seven mazurkas, conjuring a unique and lively character in each piece. “Mazurka in B-flat major” lilted with the coy playfulness of keeping a secret. Kissin crouched over the piano as if cradling the sound, but he let chordal passages twirl and rumble with the fervor of a tornado. Chopin’s two-part work, “Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise,” scintillated as Kissin’s right hand tumbled through spinning passages with exquisite precision, like rain running down a roof.
Against thunderous applause, Kissin spoiled his voracious audience with four encore performances. Just when the previous one seemed like the last, Kissin returned on stage, grinning at the audience and resuming his perch at the bench as he blithely rattled off the composer and work. The crown jewel arrived in his much-anticipated performance of Chopin’s titanic “Polonaise in A-flat major.” Frenetic and majestic, Kissin dazzled through impossibly lucid scales and trills that left audiences breathless, ambling out of the venue in a dreamlike daze to reunite with the chilled San Francisco air.