Yevgeny Kissin is a leading pianist who specializes in the romantic literature of the 19th Century. Born in Russia, he now resides in the UK and Israel. A musically precocious child, he began formal piano lessons at age 6, gave his first recital at 10, and was first recorded at 13. The present recording, made in December 1990 when he was 19, features music of Schubert, Liszt, and Brahms. Kissin was already a seasoned performer by this time, and his amazing piano technique is apparent in this recording.
The opening selection is Schubert's Fantasie in C. Its themes are based on a Schubert song, "The Wanderer," composed six years earlier, and the Fantasie is generally known by that name as well. Schubert interrupted composing his B-minor symphony ("Unfinished") to compose this piano work at the request of a wealthy amateur pianist. It's a virtuosic work noted for its difficulty; Schubert had trouble playing it himself, and of the concluding section said, "Only the devil can play it." The work is continuous but in four sections, an opening allegro con fuoco, an adagio, a scherzo, and a concluding allegro that is quasi-fugal. The slow section quotes the Wanderer song in its entirety, and the other sections are based on abbreviated versions of the theme's opening notes in quicker time. It's one of Schubert's greatest works and was greatly admired by Franz Liszt, who arranged an orchestral version of the piano score.
Many well known pianists have recorded the Wanderer Fantasie. Among the most admired performances are those of Sviatoslav Richter and Alfred Brendel. Richter's is notable for its energetic drive, and Brendel's for bringing out melodic lines. Kissin's performance contains a good measure of each of these qualities and, in my opinion, is the equal of these two great performers. He brings out the gorgeous lyricism of the adagio section, but one senses that there is coiled energy ready to burst forth, as it does in the middle of the section. In the fugal finale, he's pure dynamite. He's been accorded crisp sound which complements accurate pedaling; there's no muddiness in this performance.
Liszt arranged several Schubert songs for piano alone, with more elaborate settings than Schubert originally used, four of which are heard here. It's praiseworthy that Kissin's performances of these heartfelt pieces are good at emphasizing the basic melodic structure and keeping Liszt's added frills in the background. These are delightful renditions of some of Schubert's best songs.
Brahms composed and published his Fantasies for piano, Opus 116, in 1892. The Fantasies comprise seven short piano pieces called either capriccios or intermezzos. The andante or adagio intermezzos are well within the grasp of good amateur pianists; the livelier capriccios are more challenging. Many pianists have recorded these pieces as well as other sets that Brahms also wrote: Op. 117, 118, and 119. Kissin takes a very romantic approach to these short pieces, not inappropriate considering that Brahms marked No. 3 as "Allegro passionato," No. 5 as "Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento," and No. 6 as "Andantino teneramente." Kissin takes rather slow tempos in the intermezzos compared to others; his andantes are almost adagios, and the adagio of No. 4 is molto adagio. He also uses a lot of rubato, little of which is actually indicated in the score. His playing of these selections resembles a recording I've heard of Emil Gilels performing them, except that Kissin uses a lighter touch. In his hands, No. 5 takes on a ghostly character. These interpretations are not run-of-the-mill, and one wonders what Brahms would have thought of them, but they have a certain appeal of their own and provide an interesting take on Brahms' piano music.
The concluding selection is Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp Minor. This piece, based on Hungarian folk tunes and one of 19 rhapsodies, was composed in 1853. As usual with Liszt, one of the 19th Century's greatest piano virtuosos, this rhapsody is full of runs and other pianistic daredeviltry and requires a very accomplished pianist. Kissin rises to the occasion and shows off his skill in playing this kind of virtuoso music.
In summary, Kissin is an exceptionally talented pianist whose performances on this recording are very impressive. His "Wanderer" is the best thing here and rivals any that I've heard. The Schubert songs are beautifully done, and the Rhapsody gives him another chance to show off his virtuosic ability. There may be some qualms about his performances of the Brahms works, but I found them interesting and enjoyable in their own way.
The quality of the recording is high, with very realistic piano sound. The recording is available as both a CD and an MP3 file. Since I got the MP3, I'm unable to comment on any brochure that comes with the CD.