I was a huge fan of Kissin's CD under James Levine of the Beethoven Second and 'Emperor' Concertos from 1997. Virtuosos can be problematic in the Beethoven concertos, which are spoiled by show-offy fireworks and star personality. At the same time, the usual dutiful treatment heard routinely in concert halls is deadly. Between them, Kissin and Levine injected an exciting balance of showmanship and serious musicality. The pianist's thrilling account of the 'Emperor' was the best I'd heard in decades.
That set the stage for this complete Beethoven cycle on EMI, Kissin's new label, along with a new partner, the renowned but rather staid Sir Colin Davis. I didn't want a repeat of Davis's broad, over-serious performances with Claudio Arrau on Philips. (Be prepared to slow down your metabolism.) Since these are two genuine artists, let me offer comments work by work:
Concerto #1: From the first note we hear middle-of-the-road Beethoven in a style untouched by period practice and, alas, few touches of youtful elan on Davis's part. Kissin does what he can with some sparkling panache in the solo part. He's assured in his phrasing of the slow movement's long melody but not very ethereal. The big surprise is the finale, which Kissin takes at jack-rabbit speed with dashing fingerwork. It's the first sign of temperament in the whole performance and very welcome. I like the twangy, buzzy tone of the piano's lower register as recorded by EMI, although the LSO sounds rather dull.
Concerto #2: Davis seems to find a touch of Mozartean elegance in the opening of this work, and Kissin romps along vigorously. The two are a minute slower in this movement than in Kissin's 1997 account, but they actually perform the slow movement and finale faster by a minute each, so one can't generalize about Davis losing vitality in his eighties. The Adagio feels more like an Andante; happily, conductor and soloist are both fervent and lyrical. The finale is a breakaway Allegro with rather clipped phrasing. In all, a considerable improvment over the First. (I even hear some swells in the orchestral part that remind one of 'authentic' style.)
Concerto #3: This and the Fourth Concerto bring us into fresh territory, two masterpieces new to Kissin's discography. For me, the best Thirds make a total break from the world of Haydn and Mozart, plunging us into middle-period Beethoven. Davis feels a bit cautious on that account, but Kissin compensates with heroic playing where he can -- he's certainly more galvanic than Pollini with Abbado. The forthright, clean playing of the piano part doesn't scale the heights, but it's vry good. Kissin establishes real atmopshere as he begins the Largo, a congenial place for a Chopin specialist to shine. He shows more nuance in his phrasing than in the first two concertos, and Davis responds lovingly. The Rondo Allegro finale is alert and exciting, but Kissin misses Serkin's leaping imagination. That's the only disappointment in an otherwise satisfying reading that should appeal to both classicists and romantics.
Concerto #4: Often dubbed the most feminine of the five concertos, to me the Fourth is actually marked by its lyrical invention, an unceasing opportunity for the soloist to soar. At 20 min., Davis and Kissin take the first movement broadly, and I wish the solo entry of the piano weren't so timid (unexpected blandness from Kissin). Sadly, the long orchetral tutti that follows is mush. Serkin owned this piece because he didn't soften the line but kept it dynamically moving and changing. At least Kissin's passagework is vigorous, but Davis keeps sleepwalking. The Daniel-in-the-lion's-den byplay of the slow movement is handled middling well. Davis isn't enough of a lion, and Kissin's quiet calmness doesn't go beyond that. The breathless bridge to the finale, which should touch the hem of heaven, doesn't quite. The finale itself comes off well, with dazzling and totally effortless fingerwork by Kissin, probably the most assured I've ever heard. But the overall impression is of opportunities missed -- the collaboration shouldn't have been so tepid..
Concerto #5: Virtuosos who feel hemmed in by the earlier concertos long to cut loose in the 'Emperor,' as well they should. Thankfully, Davis provides a vigorous platform, adopting the same tempos as Levine in Kissin's earlier recording. The pianist doesn't barnstorm, which I miss, actually, but he's up to every task. Besides brilliant passagework, there's a touch of Pollini's respectful sobriety and nuanced phrasing. Ideally one wants Serkin's impetuosity that breaks unexpectedly into quiet rapture. Kissin doesn't provide that magical contrast, but he's very impressive on his own terms. Davis takes us to chruch in the slow movement, while Kissin's lyrical line is more straightforward. As expected, he handles the crowded chords and leaps in the finale to a fare-thee-well. In all, this is a fine "Emperor," not far below the very best (i.e., Serkin-Bernstein, Kempff-Leitner, Kissin-Levine, to name some personal favorites).
To sum up, this is the first Beethoven concerto cycle to mark as an event in decades, and although it's a bit middle-of-the-road on Davis's part, Kissin has something striking to say in every piece. He's more successful than Pollini in conveying a sense of involvement, if not nearly as imaginative as Pletnev, whose mercurial cycle is appearing on DG at the same moment. Comparing the two in the coming weeks will be fascinating.