Much has changed in the world since Evgeny Kissin’s last performance in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall in March 2014, but, after his exquisitely refined and authoritative recital there Sunday evening, it’s clear at least one thing hasn’t changed: Kissin is still the planet’s most celebrated and gifted living classical pianist.
The Moscow-born virtuoso, who turned 47 on Oct. 10, originally was scheduled to open his return program at Davies with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, but the recital instead began with Chopin’s Nocturne in E major, Opus 62, No. 2 and Nocturne in F minor, Opus 55, No. 1, as well as Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Opus 14, a work performed less often than the Beethoven but no less demanding.
Kissin effectively conveyed the reflective, dark-toned hue of the two nicely paired Chopin nocturnes with moving warmth and grace. In the E major nocturne, Kissin’s mastery over the heavily contrapuntal elements was unctuously evident throughout, while he infused the F minor nocturne with magisterial texture and ravishing arpeggios.
For the expansive Schumann sonata, Kissin’s superb technique and interpretive skills were on full display. He opened the Allegro with delightful sprightliness and passionate passagework, and he continued on with lush, engaging insistence in the Scherzo. As volatile as this work can be, Kissin guided it through spotless, fluid movements, and remained unfazed by scattered applause after a multi-chromatic tackling of the Quasi variazioni to dispatch with aplomb the difficult, at turns contemplative Prestissimo into its bold finale.
After the intermission, Kissin delved into the Russian repertoire when he served up a delectable “zakuski” of 10 preludes by Rachmaninoff, including seven from Ten Preludes, Opus 23, and three from Thirteen Preludes, Opus 32. His appropriate balanced approach lent a Goldilocks Zone-like just-right quality to these varied compositions.
In the fleeter, more dramatic preludes, such as No. 5 in G minor of Opus 23 or No. 13 in D flat major of Opus 32, Kissin’s sheer power and technical prowess shined with that unmistakable “wow” factor. But he was just as captivating and expressive in the preludes with a more measured pace and calmer tone.
Kissin then obliged the ecstatically appreciative audience with a quartet of encores: a meltingly beautiful rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major, Opus 15, No. 2; a snappy delivery of his own jazzy Toccata; an energetically stylish offering of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Opus 53; and a glowing account of Scriabin’s Etude in C sharp minor, Opus 2, No. 1.