The sound at the start is simply terrific. At first I couldn't remember such an impact from the opening bars of any piano piece since I heard Serkin in the Hammerklavier more than 30 years ago, and that was a live performance. The mood stayed with me through the rest of the sonata. Everything was not only right, but outstandingly right. The alternations of blazing declamation and hushed awe and unease in the first movement were balanced perfectly. The flowing lyricism of the second movement built up with just the right intensity to its climax and relapsed again as it ideally should. The swagger in the third movement was effortless and in the right sense arrogant. The Ruckblick was pensive, anxious and resigned. The finale's wide tonal contrasts were handled with an effortless command, and from first to last the monstrous technical demands of the work were met with an Olympian near-disdain.
The A minor intermezzo from the op 76 set was next, and I was struck again by the natural instinct this player has for this composer, as I had been when I heard him in the op 116 set on a disc he had done 10 years or more previously. I remembered comparing his accounts with those of Katchen in his great omnibus Brahms set, and I remembered on balance rating Kissin better. This prompted me to remind myself how Katchen handled the sonata, and that was when I got something of a shock. The recorded sound Katchen was given was good in its time, but not even distantly comparable to Kissin's with its tremendous resonant low registers. All the same, it was quite good enough for me to realise that Katchen's despatch of the opening bars, and indeed of the whole first movement, was every bit as virtuosic and commanding as Kissin's. I found the same in the scherzo, and I found the same again in the finale. What was more, I found a marked similarity in the interpretations, and where they differed, notably at the end of the first movement where Kissin delivers a `triumphant conclusion' (Beethoven-style presumably) as specified in the liner note and Katchen gives me something I found more distinctively Brahmsian, I found myself tending to prefer Katchen. This impression was reinforced in the two slow sections. Good as Kissin is in the main andante, there is more inwardness from Katchen. Moreover to my surprise I even found Katchen more effective in some minor technical aspects, notably better definition in the trills and a more even delivery of the drumming repeated left-hand phrases in the Ruckblick.
The famous B minor capriccio is excellent, the speed fastish like Backhaus although predictably more flexible, not slowish as in Rubinstein's very striking reading. It leads in the 5 Hungarian dances, apparently favourite encores of Kissin's. These are less to my taste. Kissin changes his style of playing here, and I find him a bit too excitable. The changes of speed are right up to a point, but I have actually heard a Hungarian dance played (and introduced) by Brahms himself and it was a bit more sober than this approach. Kissin departs, I can only suppose deliberately, from his previous rhythmic finesse and pecks at the rhythm in a way I can't really get on with, particularly in the second and fourth of his selection - I heard Rattle give the former as an encore in the orchestrated version and it was another experience entirely.
This has to be a 5-star issue because the performance of the sonata is simply prodigious. The last recital disc I bought by Kissin was when he was 20 years old or less, and then I hoped and expected to find in him the special kind of individuality that I find in, say, Horowitz, Serkin, Michelangeli, Richter, Cziffra, Gould and Ogdon. Maybe I yet shall.