Not ANOTHER ultimate virtuoso, I thought, remembering uneasily how Horowitz was dismissive, and Michelangeli downright rude, about the younger players. So this seemed like a good mix of pieces to start getting to know Kissin, with Liszt (of course) but Schubert and Brahms at their greatest too.
There's no mistaking it, the divine spark is here and no sense of the assembly-line virtuoso that I suppose is what Horowitz and Michelangeli were complaining about. In the Wanderer Fantasy Kissin is his own man, taking a more romantic view of the first section than Richter or Pollini. As with Richter (here at his very best) there is a warmth to the playing that I miss from Pollini, and I have to say that Richter is fully equalled by the kid with all the hair gazing out solemnly from the back of the record box. Obviously Kissin has the advantage of up-to-date recorded sound, but other than that any choice between Kissin and Richter is going to be a matter of details and personal temperament, so I prefer not to choose but to have both. In the Brahms pieces I was able to compare Kissin with the classic performance from Katchen's omnibus edition, and the first thing that struck me was that Kissin is an absolute natural for Brahms. The rubato is supremely natural and the tempi in the four slow pieces are, to my ears, definitely better chosen. The first 3 intermezzi gain in eloquence from Kissin's slower speeds, and the strange and very inward E minor is genuinely played 'con intimissimo sentimento'. Katchen misses this one, I feel. The second of the two E major pieces shows up a characteristic that Katchen never quite grew out of in his all-too-short career, namely the well-meant delusion that greater 'depth', 'expressiveness', 'spirituality' or whatever is attained by playing pianissimo where the composer wrote 'piano' and playing adagio where the composer wrote 'andante'. This piece is not even andante but 'andantino' yet Katchen plays it adagio. Kissin's tempo is very reasonable as an andantino, but you might be surprised how the piece comes to life if you play it for yourself at a more flowing speed than we usually hear. In the three fast pieces I can't be so clear in my preference as both are excellent. The most striking diference is in the G minor capriccio with the central section featuring the one one and only big tune that I can recall in Brahms's solo piano music. Katchen is fast and ardent, Kissin slow and majestic. I can't make up my mind. Why should I have to?
Liszt's 4 Schubert song arrangements are wonderful. Liszt was at his best when someone else, e.g. Schubert or Verdi, provided the actual music. The power of these familiar melodies comes over in a new light, especially as played with effortless grandeur, sensitivity and flexibility by Kissin. There is also one of Liszt's own Hungarian Rhapsodies, and the playing is pretty terrific without quite persuading me, as Horowitz and Cziffra (almost) do that Liszt's original compositions are anything but absolute bobbins as music.
I shall be acquiring more of Kissin's work and listening out hard to try to catch a true individual voice as I catch it from Horowitz, Michelangeli, Richter, Serkin or Cziffra. Looking through some reviews I am pleased to see that people are keeping their critical faculties alert and not heaping on Kissin the indiscriminate plaudits that really do an injustice to Richter --he was a far more complex phenomenon than you would think to read much of it. One touch I have already noticed - Kissin understands the expressive potential of separating his hands, but as often as not plays the right hand first, which is a new one on me. I want to hear more.