Kissin offers new flourish from the past

Conductor John Nelson (left) and Evgeny Kissin join this week at the BSO. Conductor John Nelson (left) and Evgeny Kissin join this week at the BSO. (Stu Rosner)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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If last week’s invigorating Boston Symphony Orchestra program tilted toward the 21st century, with a living composer leading his own work from the podium, this week plunges back into the 19th century and reaches for an older era of Romantic pianism.

Evgeny Kissin is the soloist in two big warhorse concertos, Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Chopin’s First, and conductor John Nelson filled out the program with two orchestral works by Liszt. By the end of the night, a sold-out Symphony Hall was roaring its approval, and shouts of “Bravo Genya!’’ could be heard.

Kissin, seemingly undimmed by the evening’s exertions, sat down and effortlessly dispatched two encores, Grieg’s “Aus dem Karneval’’ (Op. 19, No. 3) followed by Chopin’s Waltz No. 14, and looked as if he could have easily kept going.

Facility has never been an issue for this remarkable Russian pianist, who captured international attention when he was just 12 years old with his recording of the two Chopin concertos. That they were the same two Chopin works he has now played on two successive visits to the BSO, however, hints at bigger questions that have long hovered over his career: whether he has continued to sufficiently grow and deepen as an interpretive artist or to sufficiently expand his repertoire.

In a way, this concert represented a modest instance of doing just that. The Grieg of course looms large in the piano world, but not in Kissin’s personal repertoire. This is only his second set of performances, the first having taken place just last week in Chicago.

And this week’s original BSO program was to also include the seldom-heard Scriabin Piano Concerto in what would have been Kissin’s very first performances of that piece. According to a BSO spokesperson, the pianist ultimately decided one new work was enough and switched the Scriabin for the Chopin. At least he is thinking about terra incognita.

Last night the Grieg received a vastly fresher performance than the Chopin, which you might expect, given the context. In the Grieg, the playing was alert, supple, and less canned, with Kissin summoning bold displays of power and refinement as needed. The pianist also has a gift for drawing a warm pearly tone from the instrument.

Many of these qualities were nominally present in the Chopin, but the performance felt less inspired, more airless. The notes come so easily to Kissin that it can sometimes be hard to guess at what is behind them.

Nelson was a responsive accompanist, though his Liszt selections (the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 for orchestra, and the symphonic poem “Orpheus’’) came across as a distant second to the evening’s main event.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


John Nelson, conductor.

At: Symphony Hall, last night

(repeats today and tomorrow).