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Evgeny Kissin once again proves he’s an heir to keyboard greats

Updated: April 30, 2013 1:09PM

In some ways, what Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin is doing at 41 is more astonishing than what he was sharing with a jaw-dropping world as a 12-year-old and teenager in the 1980s.

He was a prodigy, without question, whose debuts in concert and recital around the world and live recordings were events. But Kissin has not only continued to play with formidable technique and intelligence as an adult, he has restored the idea of the pianist as a star, and as a star based on actual playing, not on glitz, flash, hype or hair gel, concepts apparently wholly alien to him.

He plays whatever he wants and wherever he wants, with much of his schedule announced through 2016. And he wants to play the great programs in the tradition of his fellow Russians and Russian emigres and to play them in concert halls for focused fans. He is an ambassador for something seen as old — unamplified Western art music played live and with seriousness — that in his case becomes new for each cycle of listeners. Parents and grandparents with young children in tow were in abundance at Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall. There was no sense of duty in the air, whether on the part of the charges or their minders. Just keen focus and joy.

Two things stood out Sunday in a program the pianist is touring all season and will bring Friday to New York’s Carnegie Hall. The first was his traversal in the first half of Beethoven’s last of 32 piano sonatas, the C Minor, Op. 111 of 1821-22. This is a work that perhaps more than any other requires the highest physical and intellectual skills in tandem, the province of a select echelon of probing artists such as Brendel, Kempff, Arrau, Richard Goode and Stephen Kovacevich, and not necessarily those identified more as showpiece virtuosos.

Kissin, at least for these 25 minutes, joined their ranks. He saw not only each of the two unique movements whole but the connections between them, too, gave each of the contrasting variations in the second movement its technical due yet also made their connections seamless. Because you never had a moment’s doubt that this summary work was going to flow fully and unchecked, you could actually take time to watch Kissin’s choices in fingering, hand coordination and pedaling — none for show, but all good to have as road maps if one suddenly awoke with superhuman keyboard skills. Thomas Mann devoted a whole chapter of his great novel “Doctor Faustus” to this sonata. This was a performance that showed you why, structurally and philosophically.

As a complement to this achievement, to close the recital’s second half, Kissin took up what is seen almost solely today as a gymnastic crowd-pleaser, Liszt’s mid-19th century Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-Sharp Minor, and reminded the audience of what we’ve missed as such works have been sidelined or played only with circus style. Along with his second encore (of four!), the same composer’s F Minor Transcendental Etude No. 10, this is where Kissin showed how no one since Horowitz can play these sorts of pieces impeccably and so musically. Breathtaking stuff.

The opening 1790 Haydn sonata (in E-flat) mostly served to introduce Kissin’s fascination with how the hands can be used and how throwing their synchronization off just slightly can illuminate melodic and linear development. Four Schubert Impromptus (1827), two each from the D. 935 and D. 899 sets, had great charms and showed insights into achieving certain sounds and colors. Kissin is not at all alone, though, in trying to fit these individual pieces together into some type of a suite. I took them each as they came, one at a time.

In Florida, Kissin, who at times has given a dozen or more encores as an afternoon turns into evening, reportedly played none for some reason. In Boston last week, he gave five. Here, with occasional displays of his small smile, after opening with Sgambatti’s “Melodie” transcription from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” and the aforementioned Liszt etude, there was Liszt’s embroidery on Schubert’s “The Trout”; although the audience ovations showed no signs of diminishing, as a closer, Chopin’s D Minor 24th Prelude from Op. 28, its final low Ds saying, “I’m done.”

The recital, as all of his performances this season, was dedicated by Kissin to the memory of his father, Igor Kissin, a retired engineer, who died last May in New York at 77.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).

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