With an angel face framed with abundant black curls, Evgeny Kissin was once classical music’s most miraculous child. It’s both a truism and an understatement to say that he had a God-given talent.
He was a sickly infant whose phenomenal musical gift first declared itself when, aged eleven months, he suddenly sang the theme from the Bach fugue which his elder sister was studying. His family gladly sacrificed their lives on the altar of his genius, which was hailed unanimously when he made his solo debut, aged twelve, at the Moscow Conservatory. Listening blind to the recording of that event, in which he played Chopin’s two piano concertos – sustaining their filigree beauty with cool authority – one would have said it was a major performer at the peak of their powers.
His reluctance to give interviews reinforced his legendary status, and his CDs reinforced the general admiration for his majestically immaculate live performances. For thirty years his trajectory was faultless, and he was laden with honours.
Last year he was hit hard by an incapacitating shoulder injury – and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has suddenly politicised him. He’s composed a trio about that war, and says all his musical work now is dedicated to a Ukrainian victory.
He opened his Barbican recital with an almost aggressive account of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. The Fantasia is an extraordinary Baroque composition, being a single melodic line which constantly turns back on itself and inside out: the way Kissin played it suggested the angry lashing of a serpent’s tail.
Next came Mozart’s ninth piano sonata, whose three movements became three quite separate worlds. The first had a springtime charm, but the slow movement brought out the rebel in Kissin: it has a lovely melody, but he gave it a tempo so funereal that at times it almost came to a halt.
Then he got down to business, first with Chopin’s darkly furious F sharp minor Polonaise. When I interviewed him last summer, he said he was trying to include that work in all his recitals, since it was Chopin’s expression of solidarity with his downtrodden Polish compatriots, and it could now mirror his own resistance to the Putin regime. Here he gave it a majestic rendering.
The rest of the recital was Kissin’s homage to Rachmaninov in his centenary year – two preludes, six Etudes-tableaux, and – in response to a standing ovation – three Rachmaninov encores. The last of these was the C sharp minor Prelude which the composer grew to hate because of its world-wide popularity. It was of course magnificent.