Dallas — Evgeny Kissin-An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry was a sound painting of expected and unexpected timbral colors. Music coupled with poetry reading in concert is not new, but a concert pianist alternating between playing the piano and reciting poetry, is unusual. The audience at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House on Thursday, Dec. 10, gradually discovered that Evgeny Kissin is as captivating when reciting poetry as when he is playing the piano. Initially, audience members looked at each other quizzically in an effort to understand what was happening because this was a different format. By the end of the first recitation however, they were gleeful. Kissin, presented in ATTPAC’s Classical Criterion series, thrilled through the expected virtuosic performance at the piano, and the unexpected, his voice.
Kissin is an extraordinary pianist whose prodigiousness is widely recognized. Following a 2007 Carnegie Hall recital, he had played not one, not three, but 12 encores, including a performance of Liszt’s Liebestraum, and Horowitz’s Carmen variations. The audience would not let him stop. It was 11:45 p.m. before he could finally leave the stage.
Born in Moscow, he began playing piano at age 2. At ten, he debuted with the Ulyanovsk Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.466. His performances of Chopin’s Piano Concertos 1 and 2 were recorded live when he was 12, and by the age of 14, he had toured Japan. On Sept. 30, 1990 at age 19, Kissin opened Carnegie Hall’s Centennial season with a debut recital program of Prokofiev, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. The upward trajectory of his career continues and there are those that proclaim his technique as the closest to Franz Liszt of anyone living today.
What ties this program together is not that it presents the works of Jewish composers and poets. It is that it reintroduces the works of Jewish artists that were minimized because of their commitment to the preservation of their culture.
Kissin is delving into his Jewish heritage. He has a fondness for hearing Yiddish because that was the language most often spoken by his grandparents. As a child he liked the rhythm and timbre of the language but he only retained a few words and phrases here and there. By his teen years he decided to learn the language. Through this study he discovered artists whose lives were limited and compromised because of their Jewishness, and because of the language that so readily identified them.
I.L. (Itzhak Leybush) Peretz is considered the father of Yiddish literature. Peretz was committed to the preservation of the Jewish culture through its artistic forms, and his poems reflect this intellectualism. His poems are of the Jewish experience, but not its religiosity. This recital program features two clusters of poems by this revered Russian poet: My Muse, Hope and Faith, The World is a Theater, Time, Don’t Think the World Is a Tavern, Once and The Year in one cluster, and On Your Balcony, The Moon Shines, Black Wings, I Threw Myself on the Bed, Don’t Think, Forgotten and Dusty, Hope and Longing, and What I Want from You in the second cluster. Kissin’s delivery is melodious, sonorous, and seductive. There is an arc to the dynamics of his Russian-accented Yiddish. He delivers the poems with dramatic nuances one might expect from an actor.
“An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry” featured three composers: Ernest Bloch’s Piano Sonata, Op. 40 (1935), Alexander Veprik’s Sonata No. 2 (1924), and Alexander Krein’s Suite dansée, Op. 44 (1928). (The poems bracketed the Veprik sonata.) These composers each sought to create new and different classical music that embodied the Jewish sensibilities.
Bloch was an American composer born in Switzerland to Jewish parents. He conceived the first movement of Piano Sonata Op. 40 as being “of an obscure and metallic character without a trace of sentimentalism.” In this, Kissin was precise. The animato section has complex rhythms advanced largely through ascending thirds, and alternating fourths and fifths. The second movement, Pastorale, is softer and Impressionistic. The first movement segues immediately into the second (attaca) without a break so the textural differences feel like waves. The last movement is big, loud, and the most difficult.
Veprik grew up in Poland, and moved later with his family to Russia. He was a musician and professor of music. His work received critical acclaim at home and abroad. Sonata No. 2 was composed during the zenith of his career. However, in 1950 he was arrested as a Jewish nationalist and imprisoned. By the time of his release, his influence had waned, and his work drifted into obscurity.
Krein’s music blends secular and sacred Jewish folk melodies. This suite is the most difficult and majestic composition on the program. Kissin’s performance was magnificent.
According to his manager, he will be taking a two-year break from performing in America and Asia, so this Dallas performance was really a special opportunity.
With his decision to reintroduce these works through performance and recording, Kissin is expanding not only his personal repertoire, but the existing music history discography as well.
When asked why he learned Yiddish, he said for the same reason he plays the piano: Love.