Evgeny Kissin, a child of history

Emerging from a rare sabbatical, Evgeny Kissin – the world’s most acclaimed classical pianist – has just published his autobiography. He has also just married a childhood friend, and he’s about to release his first recital recording for a decade. Meanwhile he’s embarking on a whirlwind European tour.

‘I want people to know who I am,’ he told a BBC interviewer last month. And although that remark referred to his recitation of his own poetry in Yiddish, it implied something more general, because the image of the wild-haired, baby-faced Wunderkind who had to be defended from hordes of female fans no longer applies. Kissin is now an imposing and decisive 46-year-old who needs no help from anyone in fighting his professional corner, or in publicly championing the Israeli state whose citizenship he accepted – in addition to his British citizenship – in 2013.

It’s both a truism and an understatement to say that he had a God-given talent; one might call him an enigma, were the stages of his development not so crystal-clear. Born to a Russian-Jewish family in Moscow – his father was a rocket engineer, and his mother a piano teacher – he was a sickly child whose phenomenal musical gift first declared itself when, aged eleven months, he suddenly sang the theme from the Bach fugue which his elder sister was studying. At two he was reproducing all the music he heard around him on the piano under which he had to sleep, as the family’s three-room flat was very small.

At six he was taken to the celebrated Gnessin school and put under the tutelage of Anna Kantor, whose first impression was that ‘he could play everything, but didn’t know anything’. She moved in to become one of the family, and has been his only tutor. Other children mocked his Jewishness – it was decided to replace his father’s Jewish surname, Otman, with his mother’s more Russian-sounding Kissin – but he was cocooned by adoration, as his family gladly sacrificed their lives on the altar of his genius.

That genius was hailed unanimously when he made his solo debut, aged twelve, at the Moscow Conservatory. Listening blind to the recording of that event, in which he played Chopin’s two piano concertos and sustained their filigree beauty with cool authority, one would say it was a performer at the peak of their powers. Feeling no need to prove himself by winning competitions, he went on discreetly refining his art in Moscow, before making his European debut at sixteen, and his explosive American debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall three years later.

The recording of that event amply demonstrates why the audience response was so ecstatic, and why so many critics were impelled to speak of this nineteen-year-old as the new Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, or Sviatoslav Richter. There were moments when Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes went too fast for their own good, but the alternating fire and lyrical tenderness of that composer’s Abegg Variations contrasted beautifully with the playful crispness of Kissin’s attack in Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, while to Liszt’s towering Rhapsodie Espagnole he brought a high-octane virtuosity. The encores included a charmingly understated Chopin Waltz; the coup de grace came in the form of a notorious Prokofiev finger-twister which went like the wind, and which was, like everything else in the program, technically flawless. ‘All one could do was laugh,’ as one professional pianist in the audience commented ruefully afterwards.

Kissin’s trajectory became stellar, with him playing to packed houses all over the world, as he still does. In 1997 he gave the first-ever solo piano recital at the BBC Proms, breaking Proms records for the size of the audience and the number of encores played. But there was no hint of the circus in such appearances. His delight in his own technical prowess was evident, but, as his repertoire broadened and his discography lengthened, the refinement of his artistry intensified: whether in Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert, Scriabine, or his beloved Chopin, he could be depended upon to find new things to say, and with magisterial power.

But that initial excitement had provoked a backlash, with some critics castigating his pianism as mere heartless dazzle. And as he moved into his thirties, his ego went into overdrive, leading to inappropriately gladiatorial performances of Schubert and Schumann. He could even fault himself, admitting that his recording of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata only scratched that serene work’s surface.

In his forties, however, he’s made an aesthetic breakthrough, with performances of Liszt tone-poems and late Beethoven sonatas which have been quite simply oracular. No matter how big or complex a work, he now has an unerring mastery both of the fine detail and the architecture. Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor is a ferociously condensed work presenting stylistic problems which few pianists can solve. Kissin turns each variation into a small explosion of rage, grotesquerie, or pathos, and moves repeatedly from a smoulder to a blaze and back again, with magical results.

He’s still a pliant spirit: to watch him reverentially drinking in performances by his heroes Grigory Sokolov and Martha Argerich at the Verbier Festival is to realise he’s not above learning lessons. And he’s not po-faced: at Verbier, where he frequently performs with his Russian-virtuoso friends, he’s up for any post-recital fun that’s going, and can deliver ragtime with the best of them; the blind American jazz pianist Art Tatum is another of his heroes.

In interview he has always been strikingly gauche, leaving long silences before giving lapidary answers. His autobiography, Memoirs and Reflexions, is an eccentric work with a similarly jerky momentum, but its revealing leitmotiv is embodied in the extraordinary epitaph which he wrote for himself when still a young boy: ‘When I die, bury me in the region around Moscow, in the forest, and let the stone, under which my remains will lie, be barely visible in the grass, and it should [read]… HERE LIES EVGENY KISSIN, SON OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, A SERVANT OF MUSIC.’

Evgeny Kissin may be one of the world’s greatest living musicians, but he sees himself as a child of history.

Published in The Economist 9.7.2017


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