Ten encores. Some swore they heard 11 at Evgeny Kissin's Kimmel Center recital on Wednesday. Audiences could have left after the substantial printed program of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin and not have felt shortchanged. But Kissin obligingly returned to the stage again and again, playing for another hour. Were that many encores healthy?
The quality of his playing fell off after six, yet the crowd wanted more. Not since the heyday of Vladimir Horowitz have I seen this kind of performer/audience thing (yes, "thing," since it's hard to determine the underlying dynamics).
Yet Kissin is not, on any level, a Horowitz redux. Horowitz presented an alternative music logic that bordered brinksmanship. His piano barely sounded like one, with treble-heavy pinpoint precision that turned every phrase into stained glass. With his history of nervous breakdowns, you yelled for encores because you never knew if you'd hear him again.
In contrast, the tall, gangly, Brillo-haired Kissin represents the apotheosis of moderation. He builds on what you know rather than rocking your boat, but often taking that knowledge a sizable step further, and without mannerism.
Phrases have an arc that's a bit more dramatically shaped than other pianists could tastefully pull off. His fortissimos are never muddy; they're pure sound. His finger work is a notch cleaner than others'. And he uses it to great effect not only in the great moments, but in the throwaway connecting material that reveals the drama within the music's structure. His attention to such interior matters in Schubert's Piano Sonata in E flat major - an early work that has Mozartean charm and hyper-animated bass lines but nothing that later sonatas didn't do better - gave the piece extra integrity and a proud place on his program.
That's where Kissin's originality lies. Though his surfaces are polished, crystalline, with extra concentration that renewed the lyrical moments of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu (the best of the encores), he's best when illuminating the music from its foundation. He seems liberated by the notes - as opposed to Rudolf Serkin, whose Dionysian genie created tension with the music's highly specific container.
Kissin has no tension. That could be a recipe for faceless music-making, which he slipped into briefly at the start of Brahms' Op. 118 miniatures. But in the best moments (which was most of them) the tension came from the right place - the piece - revealing an intimacy that can be missed in Brahms. He's revealing the music rather than reliving its agony. That's healthy. And that's why you can listen to him all night.