In Memory of Isaac Stern

Evgeny Kissin, piano

Sat, May 11, 2:00 p.m.
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Evgeny Kissin’s performances with Washington Performing Arts are one of the highlights and most anticipated recitals of any given year in the Washington, D.C., classical scene. The simultaneous grandeur and intimacy of Evgeny Kissin’s solo performances give full voice to his expressive range and impressive skill. For this recital, Mr. Kissin brings repertoire that has brought him deserving renown: Beethoven’s lesser-known Sonata. No. 27, Brahms’s intense yet beautiful Ballades, Prokofiev’s thrilling Piano Sonata No. 2, and Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp Minor and Fantaisie in F Minor. Kissin’s Washington Performing Arts recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall will truly be an extraordinary experience for all who attend.

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Program Details

Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, op. 90
Frédéric Chopin – Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, op. 48, no. 2
 Fantaisie in F Minor, op. 49
Johannes Brahms – Ballades, op. 10
Sergei Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 14

More About the Artist

Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin’s musicality, the depth and poetic quality of his interpretations, and his extraordinary virtuosity have earned him the veneration and admiration deserved only by one of the most gifted classical pianists of his generation and, arguably, generations past. He has appeared with many of the world’s great conductors, including Abbado, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Dohnányi, Giulini, Levine, Maazel, Muti, and Ozawa, as well as all the great orchestras of the world. This season, Kissin returns to tour the United States with a recital program that includes the works of his beloved Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, and Prokofiev. He will also collaborate with baritone Matthias Goerne, touring Europe and the U.S. with a program of Brahms songs and piano pieces and Schumann’s masterful song cycle Dichterliebe. He also appears in concert with major European orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, among others.

“So compelling is Kissin’s pianism, so fresh his response to even the most familiar phrases, that one hangs on every note… mesmerized by the poetry of his reading.”

The New York Times

Program Notes

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E Minor, op. 90

Piano Sonata in E Minor, op. 90
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Minor, composed during the summer of 1814, looks ahead to the directions he would explore more fully in his final years. The conflict-based sonata form of the heroic style is here abandoned, replaced by a wholly original approach to sonata structure. The Sonata in E Minor is in only two movements, and these are in the unexpected sequence of a fast movement followed by a slow one. The harmonic progression is also unusual, moving from E minor to E major in the second movement, and the focused and terse structure of the opening movement gives way to a relaxed and flowing concluding movement.

Also remarkable in this music is Beethoven’s decision to set the movement markings in German rather than the traditional Italian. The first movement is marked Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck: “With liveliness and throughout with feeling and expression.” This movement is noteworthy for its rhythmic imagination: the opening phrase is full of rests and pauses and then moments where the music suddenly flashes forward; the singing second subject arrives in syncopated octaves in the right hand. Beethoven seems intent here not on building this movement out of the collision of themes of different character but on the rhythmic possibilities built into these quite different subjects. The movement vanishes on a quiet reprise of a bit of the opening theme.

The second movement—Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorzutragen (“Not too fast and to be presented very lyrically”)—is quite different. It is a broad rondo based on the gorgeous opening idea: Beethoven’s lyric sense was growing richer even as he was sinking more deeply into deafness. There are animated episodes along the way, and some of these are extended at length: this movement is significantly longer than the opening movement. But the rondo theme always makes its welcome return, and Beethoven repeatedly reminds the pianist to play dolce and teneramente (“tenderly”); only rarely does this music rise to a forte—and then quickly retreats. The rondo theme returns for a final statement, and the sonata—inward even at its close—vanishes quietly and gracefully.

Chopin – Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, op. 48, no. 2

Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, op. 48, no. 2
Frédéric Chopin
Born February 22, 1810, Zelazowska Wola
Died October 17, 1849, Paris

The Nocturne in F-sharp Minor is in the expected ternary form, but what is unexpected is how different these parts are. The opening section, marked Andantino, contrasts a recurrent triplet in the left hand with a flowing melodic line in the right. We enter a different world at the central episode, marked Molto più lento. This moves into D-flat major and proceeds along an odd rhythmic pulse, energized by its recurring quintuplets. Chopin then does an unexpected thing with the return of the opening section, in effect transforming it into a coda, and the Nocturne in F-sharp Minor finally vanishes on a wispy run and a quiet concluding chord.

Chopin – Fantaisie in F Minor, op. 49

Fantaisie in F Minor, op. 49
Frédéric Chopin

Chopin wrote the Fantaisie in F Minor early in the summer of 1841, which he spent at George Sand’s summer estate in Nohant. This was a happy interlude for the composer: after a bout with tuberculosis, he had regained his strength, and his relations with Sand were—for the moment—comparatively stable. The Fantaisie is one of Chopin’s finest works, and one critic has gone so far as to call it “Chopin’s greatest single composition.” It is also Chopin’s only work in this form, and one needs to be wary of his choice of title, which seems to imply a lack of controlling form. In fact, the Fantaisie is a very carefully structured work, fusing a wide range of expression with unusual formal imagination. This music is also remarkable for its progressive tonality—it may open in F minor, but it passes through some surprising modulations—including a quiet interlude in B major—before concluding unexpectedly in the relative major, A-flat major.

The Fantaisie opens quietly (the marking is Grave), with the music subtly energized by dotted rhythms and staccato notes. Chopin marks this opening Tempo di marcia, but the actual march does not begin for a few measures, and when it appears—moving steadily along its 4/4 meter—it subtly incorporates some of the inflections of the beginning. The march reaches a moment of repose and then eases ahead into music of great brilliance (Chopin marks it agitato) and difficulty. Much of the writing here is in octaves, and along the way Chopin introduces an entirely new march. The excitement of this opening section makes the arrival of the central Lento sostenuto all the more effective. Chopin moves to B major and switches to a 3/4 meter for this interlude, built entirely on a slow chordal melody that he specifies should be dolce. This is expressive music, far removed from the mood of the opening, and it is soon over, for the Fantaisie makes an abrupt plunge back to the principal tempo. The music feels even more dramatic on its return, and one of the jaunty march-tunes leads to an unexpected conclusion—Chopin reins in all this energy for a brief moment of repose before the music rips to its powerful close.

Brahms – Four Ballades, op. 10

Four Ballades, op. 10
Johannes Brahms
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

In the summer of 1854 Johannes Brahms wrote four short piano pieces that he called ballades. This was a very intense time for Brahms. He was very young—21—and only a few months earlier had come a catastrophe: his friend and mentor Robert Schumann had attempted suicide and was now committed to an asylum. Brahms was steadfast in his aid to the Schumann family, helping to support and organize the shattered household, visiting Robert in the asylum, and consoling Clara. And at a deeper level, Brahms was wrestling with a private demon: the collision between his own youthful love for Clara and his unwavering support for her husband.

It was under these conditions that Brahms wrote the Four Ballades. Brahms would never wear his heart on his sleeve, so we should not look for autobiographical meaning in this music, but there is no question that these are four very intense pieces. Brahms had been intrigued by the old Scottish ballad Edward, which he had first encountered in Herder’s translation, and on the first page of the music he made the connection clear: “After the Scottish ballad Edward.” That ballad tells a dark tale: young Edward comes home from the hunt with bloody hands and laments that he has killed his falcon, but it soon becomes clear that he has killed his father (and in some versions had done so at the instigation of his mother). This music has been much admired, and Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer hears a “tragic power” in it. The opening section alternates two somber chordal themes. These explode in the violent middle section, marked Allegro, and the return of the quiet opening material is unsettled by the triplets that now murmur deep in the pianist’s left hand.

The second ballade, marked Andante, is inevitably referred to as a “lullaby,” and its gentle song is softly blurred by the syncopated accompaniment—Brahms’ marking is espressivo e dolce. But this piece is not in simple ternary form, and suddenly pounding chords push the music in entirely new directions, which include a section encrusted with grace notes. Finally the opening material does return, but it has grown more complex as its winds its way into silence.

Brahms marked the third ballade Intermezzo, but it is in fact a scherzo, marked Allegro and flashing unevenly along a 6/8 meter. The chordal trio section bears some relation to the scherzo theme itself, and the actual return of that theme is quite impressive: Brahms insists on a dynamic of triple piano, and this mercurial movement almost whispers its way to the close.

Critics hear the influence of Schumann in the long final ballade, marked Andante con moto. Again, Brahms’ structure is original. The flowing opening section gives way to a murmuring episode that the composer marks Col intimissimo sentimento, but over the final pages Brahms begins to fuse elements of these two different kinds of music. These alternate, dovetail, and finally blur together.

Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 14

Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 14
Sergei Prokofiev
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow

The young Prokofiev took delight in his reputation as an enfant terrible, exulting when his music sent audiences—their hands over their ears—toward the exits in droves. The second decade of this century saw the composition of his brutal ballet Scythian Suite, the Second Piano Concerto (which an early critic said made the audience’s hair stand on end), and the aptly-titled Sarcasms for solo piano. From these same years came the Second Piano Sonata, written in 1912 when the composer was 21. When Prokofiev played this sonata in New York City, a critic wrote: “The fingers are of steel, the wrists are of steel, the biceps and triceps are of steel.” Modern ears, however, find the Second Piano Sonata much friendlier. Despite a sometimes percussive style, this sonata—especially in the Andante—features some of Prokofiev’s loveliest writing for the piano.

The sonata is in four movements, but it began life as a one-movement sonatina, which Prokofiev adapted as the first movement of the sonata. This Allegro ma non troppo is full of contrasts: its powerful beginning gives way to a floating, flowing second subject, and Prokofiev contrasts these two ideas throughout. The brief Scherzo is a driving perpetual-motion in its outer sections, a dance in the center. The Andante is especially appealing: over a rocking rhythm, the main idea sings gently, rises to a climax, and falls back to a quiet close. The concluding Vivace sounds very typical of early Prokofiev, with its percussive manner, energy, and bright colors. In an unexpected touch, Prokofiev brings back the lyric second theme of the first movement before the vigorous close, full of massed and powerful chords.

Our Partners

This performance is made possible through the generous support of the following sponsors: The Linda and Isaac Stern Charitable Foundation; Anne and Burton Fishman; Steven and Keiko Kaplan; Dallas Morse Coors Foundation for the Performing Arts; Jane C. Bergner, Esq.; Adam Clayton Powell III and Irene M. Solet; and Pro Musica Hebraica.

Washington Performing Arts’s classical music performances this season are made possible in part through the generous support of Betsy and Robert Feinberg.

This is one of fourteen 2023-2024 season performances included in Washington Performing Arts’s The World in Our City initiative, which promotes cross-cultural understanding and cultural diplomacy via the presentation of international visiting artists, globally inspired local programming, and the award-winning Embassy Adoption Program, a partnership with D.C. Public Schools. Support for The World in Our City is provided by The Boeing Company.

Special thanks to the following lead supporters of Washington Performing Arts’s mission-driven work: Jacqueline Badger Mars and Mars, Incorporated; D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts; and The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.

This performance is an external rental presented in coordination with the Kennedy Center Campus Rentals Office and is not produced by the Kennedy Center.

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