Evgeny Kissin's more or less annual recital appearances are invariably among the most highly anticipated events of Chicago's classical music season, and the audience turnout for the Russian piano virtuoso's concert Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall was true to precedent.
The auditorium was packed, and stage seats had to be brought in to accommodate the overflow. It also was a rather unmannerly throng, prone to fits of coughing and sneezing and applause between movements. One Kissin fan who insisted on taking flash pictures with her cellphone camera was given a stern lecture by an usher.
None of this seemed to ruffle the pianist's concentration or effortless command, or his ability to make every interpretative choice feel so inevitable that you were convinced, at least for he moment, that the music could go no other way.
By contemporary standards, Kissin's program was rather old-fashioned, even reactionary: Apart from a seldom-encountered sonata by Prokofiev, he limited his selections to the standard canon of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.
Not that there was anything the least bit predictable or perfunctory about his playing. Indeed, Sunday's performances were filled with the probing musical insights and beautiful tonal finish one has come to expect from Kissin. Everything he played bespoke clarity and purposefulness. And there was that colossal technique to make light of even the most formidable difficulties.
His magisterial account of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata at the start made it that much more difficult for him to top himself later on, although he did just that with a group of Chopin nocturnes and mazurkas following intermission.
Kissin launched into the opening movement of the Beethoven at a briskly determined clip, his control and scrupulous attention to detail filling the music with tingling excitement and a clear sense of where that music wanted to go. By the time he reached the headlong coda to the final movement, his joy in the sheer physical momentum of Beethoven's writing was evident.
After a Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 that went from austere rumination to manic exuberance, it was in the nine Chopin pieces where this pianist's special gifts shined the brightest. You were reminded that Kissin burst onto the international stage with Chopin's music in 1984 when he was a bushy-haired 12-year-old. Now that he is a grand old keyboard master of 43, the virtuosity has been harnessed even more firmly to musical ends.
To the Nocturne in C minor (Opus 48, No. 1) Kissin brought tremendous sweep and variety of sonority, along with a poetic depth that presented this masterpiece at its most winning. If possible, the B major Nocturne (Opus 9, No. 3) was even finer as an interpretation; here his supple rubato felt as natural as breathing.
Together, the six mazurkas also made a fully satisfying statement, Kissin bringing out the dance impetus with subtle fluctuations of pulse allied to supreme clarity, lyrical elegance and finely judged rhythmic articulation. So discreet was his pedaling that every note of his passagework was distinct, with no loss of a smooth legato.
Kissin ended with a stunning rendition of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 ("Rakoczi March"), whose barnstorming bravura brought the crowd to its feet, trumpeting hosannas.
The ensuing three encores may not have amounted to quite the feeding frenzy of some previous Kissin concerts here (in 2007, he played an 11-encore marathon lasting an hour and a half), but it added rewards of its own to an absorbing afternoon of music.
Continuing in the musical styles presented earlier, Kissin played Chopin's Nocturne in F sharp minor (Opus 48, No. 2); Liszt's Etude No. 5 in E major ("La Chasse"); and the March from Prokofiev's opera "The Love for Three Oranges." A broad grin and a formal bow to the cheering crowd, and it was all over. Between Kissin's recital and Daniil Trifonov's concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (through Tuesday night), local fanciers of Russian piano artistry have much to be grateful for.
Von Rhein is a Tribune critic.