Returning to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night, Evgeny Kissin did not look a day older than when he played the first solo recital in the hall during its opening festivities in 2003. For that matter, the 37-year-old Russian pianist appears hardly changed since he became an international sensation in his teens.
He still walks onstage as if in a trance, only springing to fluid life the instant his fingers come in contact with the keyboard. He hasn't lost his deer-in-the-headlights look when his adoring fans burst into round after round of rhythmic clapping, as they always do. Indeed, Kissin would have been knee deep in flowers if the ushers had let all the patrons with bouquets bring them into the hall.
But Kissin has indeed matured artistically. He exhibited a new expansiveness in his playing Monday. He always had a luxurious tone, but he has added a richer palette of colors. He shows more capacity for delving deep into scores but also takes more chances, and some of them are newly peculiar. He was presumably born with superhuman hands, but now they seem to be operated by the next generation of ultra-fast processor and versatile software.
The best of the new Kissin can be found in his engrossing latest recording of Beethoven's five piano concertos with the London Symphony conducted by Colin Davis. In a crowded market, his Beethoven playing stands out not so much for drama but for a reverent, gorgeous sound.
What was unexpected Monday was the drama and atmosphere Kissin was able to create the second he started playing. He divided his program between Prokofiev in the first half and Chopin in the second, and he began with music most would use to say good night: three excerpts from Prokofiev's Ten Pieces for Piano from "Romeo and Juliet," which are piano transcriptions of the ballet score and make effective encore pieces.
That a pianist who grew up in Moscow would have an instinctive feel for Prokofiev's famous ballet is no more surprising than an American grasping Gershwin. But what was exceptional was the way Kissin created a fully formed vision of Juliet girlishly daydreaming yet sexually ripe or of a chaotically charismatic Mercutio. When presenting the Montagues and the Capulets, he evoked not merely a full orchestra but a full stage.
The big piece was Prokofiev's Eighth Sonata, the last of his three War Sonatas.
The Seventh is the well-known one, a great showpiece. The Eighth is more mysterious. In a long, slow first movement, quizzical, bittersweet melodies flow in and out of a kind of ethereal mist. Kissin, though, got lost in the fog of war. He turned a "sweet" andante into a ponderous largo. Sviatoslav Richter said of this sonata that it has a complex inner life. Kissin may have taken that observation too much to heart. There was little outer life in his interpretation, and what there was felt like war's ravages.
The middle movement, a neoclassical minuet and a respite, was again unusually slow and sad. The dance was heard from far away. The last movement, a tarantella, was ferocious.
Like a jazz musician losing himself in the music and his turbulent feelings, Kissin played as if in a world of his own. And heard that way, the performance was not only fascinating but arresting. Prokofiev was a great pianist himself, but I doubt that he could have imagined or pulled off half the feats that Kissin accomplished, whether the extravagant delicacy or the headstrong thunder.
The Chopin after intermission began with the big Polonaise-Fantasy, Opus 61, and then included a selection of three mazurkas and eight etudes taken from the Opus 10 and 25 sets. Some mannerisms are beginning to creep into Kissin's playing. He draws out lyrical passages and he out-virtuosos just about anyone in the fast sections. Melodrama becomes a danger, but one that he overcame in the "Winter Wind" etude, which ended the recital, when he offered such heavy weather that there really was no port in the storm.
Kissin has not yet, I suspect, reached his real maturity. I look forward to a time when he will be able to cut through all the complexity of his interpretations and find a center. But he is on a remarkable tear at the moment, trying out new things and letting himself go, and that is extremely exciting.