Pianist Kissin is an eloquent spokesman for Yiddish culture and music

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 1/2/2016

Evgeny Kissin, Pianist and Speaker
BLOCH Piano Sonata Op. 40. Alexander VEPRIK Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 5. Alexander KREIN Suite dansée Op. 44. Yizhak Leybush PERETZ Selected Poems.  Carnegie Hall, 12/16/2015

This Carnegie Hall program by Evgeny Kissin was a sober event commemorating the vanished world of Yiddish culture in post revolutionary Russia.  A performance of minor works, in minor keys coupled with the reading of melancholy poetry might not seem like suitable holiday fare, but when one considers the source of either Christian or Jewish celebrations of the season, one is led to very serious thoughts about love, hope, justice, and inner peace.

These were the subjects of Ytzhak Leybush Peretz ‘s poetry, and Evgeny Kissin revealed another facet of his own expansive mind and heart in his recitation of them. His rich baritone voice rang through the hall like a dark bell, with a rhythm and nuance bordering on song. He spoke by memory, with a sense of urgency, delivering with almost aggressive assurance the truth, sometimes beautiful, sometimes despairing, about fragile humanity, and the human condition. With a minimum of gestures, without any pretence or histrionics, he spelled out his lines to a riveted public, who listened in profound, reverential silence. The verses themselves are not great in the sense that Pushkin or Lermentov are great, but they are every bit as forthright and simple as the work of these two giants, giving one a similar feeling that no word need be added, and no word should be taken away.   

The musical offerings, Bloch’s piano sonata, a collection of dances by Alexander Krein and Aleksander Veprik’s second piano sonata, seemed like three massive blocks of cool dark granite, offering little variety in color, style, or mood. All of them shared the Soviet patina of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, frenetic, nervous, angular, with driving rhythms and extended passages of relentless, percussive fortissimos. Kissin’s delivery was not as secure or facile as one has come to expect, perhaps because he has less occasion to play these pieces. The finger work that framed the declamatory chords and octaves was not as articulate as usual, but his vision of the compositions’ architecture was crystal clear, and his emotional commitment palpable.

One left the hall with the feeling of being added to; that the truth had been told, the same truth found in the novels of the composers’ contemporary, Vasily Grosman, engendered from the darkest circumstances but revealing the miraculous in the world and the human heart: “The miraculous, ” as Akhmatova wrote, “which lies so close to our ruined, dirty houses, known to no man, but wild in our breast for centuries.”

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.