Wednesday 19 August 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 7.30 p.m.
Recorded at Royal Albert Hall on 10 August 1997
Guest Writer, Ateş Orga
Twenty-three years ago. Kensington Gore. A hot August Sunday. Three o’clock. Milling crowds. Evgeny Kissin waiting in the corridor. A slight Russian of twenty-five, white jacketed, in Adrian Jack’s words of the time “almost a Michael Jackson lookalike, tiny, doll-like.” Centre-arena a purpose-built stage spotlit from the dome, suffocated by Prommers, countless hands reaching up towards the Steinway. A recital eventually running just short of two-and-a-half hours. Anna Kantor, Kissin’s Moscow teacher, secreted away among the stalls, his mother too.
The afternoon – the first recital in the annals of the Proms – defied superlatives. It still does. Here was a young man of old spirit, digging deep within the instrument, orchestrating and voicing every phrase and subtext, living dreams, sailing by fair winds and storms, an orator of climaxes, a poet of cadences. Listening ‘blind’, what passed before one was an extraordinary pageant of intensities, emotions and colours, of time ebbing and flowing, shaped by, yet liberated of, the printed page. Water-coloured nuances, melodies projected with the clarity of bells on the wind, arguments hued out of granite, paragraphs winged with grace, power, and incisive aristocracy. Faultless (frighteningly faultless) pianism at the service of composer and music, surpassing any challenge, spinning long legatos, forging volcanic, roaring apparitions, holding us in strange spells. White hot genius.
Of the programme, there’s all or nothing one could say. Haydn’s final Sonata (the E-flat, No.52) assumed grandiose dimensions, the Finale worthy of the most teasing of the best of the ‘London’ Symphonies, pulsating with energy and humour. Liszt – the Liebesträume, boudoir heart and purling decoration, the Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody, gipsy fires and tribal drama – glowed and thundered, embrace and rhetoric, bass guns, gilding the minutes. Chopin in the second half took us back to another age, Kissin’s playing with time and touch creating a magical mosaic, the ache and nostalgia of his suspended Opus 27 Nocturnes suggesting neither boy nor man before us but a bard of some remote autumnal past. The B-minor Sonata took on a striking persona, a ‘fairy tale’ fusion of symphony and opera, caprice, prayer and exaltation.
Seven encores followed, each fresher than the other. Spectacular perfection, annihilating brilliance. For the record: Beethoven’s ‘Turkish March’ from The Ruins of Athens arranged by Anton Rubinstein; Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat (Op.34/1); Liszt’s La Campanella; Schubert’s F-minor Moment Musical in Godowsky’s transcription; Beethoven’s Rondo ‘Rage Over a Lost Penny’; and Chopin’s A-minor Mazurka (Opus 67/4) and his posthumously published E-minor Waltz. You can re-live the set in Christopher Nupen’s visceral film of the occasion, along with the D-flat Nocturne from Opus 27 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WDU14w_AZc.
Record-breaking concerts come no more legendary. Kissin’s most-famous Prom.