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MUSIC REVIEW

Pianist Kissin plays up to the many challenges of Liszt

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / March 5, 2011

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The music world is marking the bicentennial of the birth of Franz Liszt — composer, virtuoso, and all-around diabolical genius. The latest event in the ongoing celebration came on Wednesday, when Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin brought an all-Liszt recital to a packed Symphony Hall.

Liszt’s music — and, to a lesser extent, Kissin’s playing — share a reputation for technical wizardry that sometimes skirts intellectual depth. Wednesday’s recital, though, focused largely on the composer’s more serious works, opening with the placid “Ricordanza,’’ the ninth of his Transcendental Etudes. Kissin brought it off with not only grace but great ease: His fingers seemed barely to touch the keyboard as the piece’s lengthy, even cadenzas emerged.

Next came the evening’s main course: the single-movement Sonata in B minor, probably Liszt’s most enduring compositional success. Kissin played it with an almost superhuman combination of power, forward drive, and control. Tempos were fast, and there was an undercurrent of nervous tension even in serene moments. Minefield passages of double octaves were tossed off at a speed I would have thought impossible, and with pinpoint clarity. Others have played this music with closer attention to its unusual structure and at a more varied pace. None of this for Kissin, whose performance seemed to happen in one giant, breathless arc.

The rest of the program was something of a letdown after the Sonata’s heroics. The second half opened with “Funérailles,’’ a dark elegy for the victims of the failed Hungarian uprising of the mid-19th century. It had a suitably noble, tragic tone, though Kissin seemed more attuned to its edgy, volatile sections than to its drifting melancholy. By contrast, he brought off the plaintive, Chopinesque melodies in “Vallée d’Obermann’’ with just the right sense of nostalgic poignancy.

But no Liszt recital, it seems, can end without a display of pianistic acrobatics, and this came courtesy of the three-part suite “Venezia e Napoli,’’ a supplement to the second book of travel pieces called “Années de Pèlerinage.’’

Its closing “Tarantella’’ captures Liszt the flamboyant entertainer in all his glory, and Kissin did not disappoint.

An enraptured audience was rewarded with three encores: an arrangement of Schumann’s song “Widmung’’; the sixth of the glosses on Schubert waltzes known as “Soirées de Vienne’’; and the “Liebestraum.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com

EVGENY KISSIN, piano

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Symphony Hall, Wednesday