Encounters with piano virtuoso Evgeny Kissin
At first, when Evgeny Kissin was a small child, his mother did not want him to become a musician. “I had seen how difficult that life was, and I didn’t like the education that was given to children training for big careers,” she says. “They struggle so hard in those special schools — they lose their childhood. I was afraid for this little son of mind.”
Anna Pavlovna Kantor, a renowned piano teacher at the prestigious Gnessen Music School for Gifted Children, in Moscow, was astonished when she met the prodigy. “This mother — she had been pressured by a friend to see me — came with her little boy, with curls all over his head like an angel,” she recalls. “He opened his bottomless eyes, and I saw a light in him. I took him by the hand and led him inside. I was amazed by this boy — not just by his ears, for many gifted children have such fine hearing, but by the way he used them. When he came to Liszt’s Twelfth Rhapsody, he played the octaves, which his tiny hands couldn’t reach, with both hands. And he had such imagination, such a sense of fantasy! I asked him to translate a story into music. I said that we were coming into a dark forest, full of wild animals, very scary, and then step by step the sun rises, and the birds start singing. And he began in the lower register of the piano, in a dark and dangerous place, and then, lighter and lighter, the birds awakening, the first rays of the sun, and finally a delightful, almost ecstatic melody.
“I didn’t want to teach him. I was afraid, because I knew I would have to teach all the basic things, the notes, how to count the pauses. I thought he would be bored, that he would lose this freshness and interest. Such imagination can be very fragile. But his mother said to me, ‘Clever and faithful helper, don’t worry. He is interested in whatever is new to him. Try.’ And so it began, and ever since then we have been together.”
Anna Kantor is still an indispensable adviser to the musical wunderkind of our time, clever and faithful helper to a career that has grown beyond all her early expectations. At the age of twenty-four, Evgeny Kissin has more than two dozen CDs in circulation, many of them best-sellers; his concerts in the world’s major halls — whether in New York, Tokyo, Milan, or Buenos Aires — are generally sold out months before they take place. Kissin has kept alive a tradition of larger-than-life virtuoso piano performance that seemed to end with the deaths of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and, last year, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. (The last living titan of this older generation is the eight-one-year-old Sviatoslav Richter.) Kissin’s performances are not intellectually conceived interpretations, like those of most modern performers, but magnificent scenes of inspiration that materialize before the audience’s very eyes. The forms of genius remain strange to us, and musical genius, which can blossom so suddenly in childhood, is the most mysterious of them all. Kant, in his seminal definition of genius, said, “If an author owes a product to his genius, he himself does not know how he came by the ideas for it; nor is it in his power to devise such products at his pleasure, or by following a plan, or to communicate [his procedure] to others in precepts that would enable them to bring about like products.” Watching Kissin perform, one sees a man who seems, literally, possessed by his music.
Though Kissin can speak of music with intellectual clarity, he can no more verbalize how he has arrived at his way of playing the piano than the leopard can explain how he got his spots. “How do you choose your encores?” I asked him when we first met, in London, in the early spring, the day after a recital. “They come to me,” he said. “How do you judge an audience?” “I feel something in the air.” “How do you decide when you are ready for a piece?” “This is always very clear to me.” “How do you decide which concerts to attend?” “I attend the ones I’m interested in.” It must have been like this to interview the early saints.
Evgeny Kissin is too tall and too thin, with an unusually large head and a mop of crazy-genius Einstein hair. It’s the sort of hair in which you could mislay something, and it’s his defining physical attribute. He has enormous brown eyes and pale skin, and the overall effect is somehow exaggerated, awkwardly out of proportion, gangly. His bearing is shy and serious, but when inspiration is upon him he seems to fill out his own proportions, taking on a celestial air that can be affecting and, at moments, strangely beautiful. He had been described to me as a “moon child” — peculiar, incomprehensible, closed, impenetrable — and at our first encounter I felt that we were speaking through an unchinked wall. When we started discussing this article, I told him that I would like to plan at least three or four meetings. He replied, sounding genuinely bewildered, “But what on earth will we talk about?”
Evgeny Igorevich Kissin was born in Moscow on October 10, 1971. His mother, Emilia, taught piano to local children; his father, Igor, was a hardworking engineer; his sister, Alla, ten years older than he, was learning piano, and would become an accomplished pianist. In a cramped apartment, they lived the life of the Soviet Jewish intelligentsia: physically uncomfortable and continually frustrating, with only the pleasures of the mind to make up for ordinary discomforts of the flesh and ideology’s intrusions on the spirit. They were a lively but not an obviously remarkable family. The understanding was that the girl would play the piano, like her mother, and the boy would be an engineer, like his father. Little Genya demonstrated remarkable gifts very early, however, and they were not engineering gifts. At eleven months, he sang an entire Bach fugue that his sister had been practicing. He soon began to sing everything he heard: whatever his sister was studying, whatever his mother’s pupils were learning, whatever came on the radio. “From that moment on,” his mother recalls, “music never left our house. He would start singing immediately after opening his eyes in the morning, and he would sing all day long. It was rather embarrassing to take him out in the streets in Moscow. He would sing all the time, with his very clear baby voice, and people would stop and stare. Sometimes little crowds would gather. At the beginning, it was amusing, but as it went on it became quite eerie. It was relentless, non-stop, and I became frightened by it.”
When he was two years and two months old, Genya sat down at the old Bechstein on which his mother taught and picked out with one finger some of the tunes he had been singing. The next day, he did the same again, and on the third day he played with both hands, using all his fingers. As the year progressed, he became more purposeful. He would listen to LPs, and immediately play back a remarkable approximation of the music he’d heard. His mother says, “Chopin’s ballades he would play with those little hands, as well as Beethoven sonatas and Liszt rhapsodies. And also songs, children’s songs and adult ones, and he would try to play symphonies.” That winter, he went to a party for a little girl who was turning two. Frightened by strangers, he stepped back and hid his face in his mother’s skirt. But when she whispered, “Genya, there is a piano over there,” he marched directly over to the instrument and entertained the other children all evening.
At three, Kissin began improvising original music. “Unfortunately, no one wrote it down, and those pieces disappeared immediately,” he told me. “I especially liked to portray in music the people I knew. I would make the rest of the family guess who it was. As a rule, their answers were right. I don’t know how, but I could grasp any form, and I wrote sonatas, rondos, mazurkas — whatever might occur to me.” By the age of six, Kissin had been taken on by Anna Pavlovna Kantor.
What most gifted students might take five lessons to learn, the young Kissin learned in one. He read music quickly, and was soon sight-reading everything put in front of him. Virtually anything he played once he had by heart, although he never made, he says, a conscious effort to memorize anything. Anna Pavlovna was very protective of him. “Her greatest triumph is that she preserved his gift,” Genya’s mother explains. “I am a teacher myself, and understand this. I will be grateful to Anna Pavlovna all my life for what she did. She understood how to supplement what was there, never replace it. And I, as a mother, tried my best to leave him alone, not to interfere in this development.”
As he grew older, Kissin stopped improvising at the keyboard and began to compose. He was often ill — he had pneumonia every winter of his childhood — and when he stayed in bed he would write music all day. All his pieces are inscribed, “Dedicated to my dear teacher, Anna Pavlovna.” Kissin never studies composition: “I was afraid that in studying it and doing exercises his inspiration might be destroyed,” Anna Pavlovna says. A few years later, he gave up composing. “I had run the gamut of styles, from Baroque to Classical to Romantic,” he says, “and then I had nothing more to say. I was increasingly involved in concert performance, and I turned my creative energies there.”
From the beginning, the piano was his emancipation. “In my first school years, when I returned from school I would, without taking my coat off, go to the piano and play for a while,” he says. I made my mother understand that this was just what I needed.” His earliest public performances, before teachers and classmates, often included his own compositions. He played his first solo recital in May, 1983, at the age of eleven. “I had such a feeling of relief,” he recalls. “During intermission, I was impatient to return to the stage. My teacher had said that there is good nervousness and bad nervousness. If you are not prepared, that’s bad nervousness. But I think I felt only excitement and pleasure.”
After the concert, a friend of Anna Pavlovna’s, the wife of the director of the House of Composers, congratulated teacher and pupil. “You play so beautifully,” she said. “I will talk to my husband and we will invite you to perform at the House of Composers.” This was a great honor, a gateway to fame and comfort in the Soviet period of deprivations. Anna Pavlovna, however, was uneasy. “You know,” she replied, “he is still very young. He shouldn’t play too much, shouldn’t go through the stress of being overexposed.” Suddenly a stranger who was standing nearby interrupted them. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I am a doctor, and I have just had the pleasure of attending this concert. I heard you say that it’s not good for him to play in public too often, and, of course, in a way that is true. But when, a few minutes ago, I saw in what a state of enthusiasm the boy returned to the stage for his encores I realized that it would be even more dangerous for him to get overburned inside. He needs to perform.” He turned to Anna Pavlovna and said, “Madam, you love him, one can easily see it, so you must find the right balance, not to push him, but not to let him consume himself.”
Kissin was brought up in the Russian pianistic tradition rooted in the grand style of the nineteenth-century composer and legendary pianist Anton Rubinstein. Josef Hofmann, who studied with Rubinstein, has said of him, “All that he did was done instinctively, which, of course, is far superior to proceeding by rule or instruction because it is vital.” The emphasis in Rubinstein’s volcanic playing was on freedom of imagination and of feeling, with a reaching for massive effects at the possible expense of precision. (Kissin himself is a virtually note-perfect performer.) Kissin is the latest in a line of Russian “supermen” of the keyboard — a line that includes Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhévinne, Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, and Lazar Berman, and whose distinguishing characteristic is a belief that the imagination and spirit of the performer should be equal to that of the composer.
Kissin début at the House of Composers, on June 23, 1983, was astonishing. The eminent pianist Dmitry Bashkirov was there, and he at once understood that this was an exceptional talent. Bashkirov arranged for Kissin to perform with the Leningrad Philharmonic in November. Two months later, in January, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim visited Moscow, and Bashkirov invited the prodigy to play for him. Barenboim carried to the West the news of an astonishing boy in Moscow, and the legend of Evgeny Kissin began.
On March 27, 1984, Kissin, age twelve, appeared in Moscow with the Moscow Philharmonic under Dmitri Kitaenko and played Chopin’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Everyone in the Russian music world was there. Photos from that occasion show a very small boy with a sweet smile and a mass of curls; he is dressed in the outfit of a Young Pioneer, with a red handkerchief tied around his neck and held in place with a badge of Lenin. Music performance enjoyed a special status among the arts in the Soviet Union, because its abstract nature kept it from being ideologically suspect. The Kremlin, in the post-Stalinist era, was vastly proud of Soviet musicians — who served much the same political function as athletic stars, ballerinas, and cosmonauts — and the Soviet pianistic hothouse of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties was for Olympian victory. Anna Pavlovna kept Kissin away from competitions at which most performers proved themselves with powerhouse ostentatiousness. A recording of the 1984 concert was released in the U.S.S.R. almost immediately, and is still in print in the West. It feels innocent, unstudied, and exquisitely cheerful. Some of the concertos’ monumentality is missing, but the playing is astonishingly articulate and beautiful in tone, and it fits Leonard Bernstein’s characterization of true artistry — “fresh but inevitable.”
As Kissin began to tour and continued to suffer bouts of pneumonia, he had an increasingly irregular schedule at school. Anna Pavlovna negotiated with the authorities for a “free-attendance regimen,” in which he received private tutoring (“The usual subjects,” he says, “history, literature, mathematics, dialectical materialism, Leninism, military science, and so on”) and spent little time in classrooms. He had never been especially connected to his peers and he had few friends his age: some were jealous, others were bewildered by him, and the escape from ordinary schooling came as a relief. Kissin and Anna Pavlovna had become inseparable, and when he was accepted at the Gnessen Institute the authorities gave her special permission to teach him there. He has never had any other teacher.
In May, 1985, Kissin left the U.S.S.R. for the first time, playing at a gala in East Berlin attended by the East German President, Erich Honecker. “There were some circus performers,” he recalls, “then I played Schumann and Chopin, and then a magician came out and did tricks.” In October, 1986, he went to Japan; in January, 1987, he made his début in Western Europe, playing with the Berlin Radio Orchestra. On September 30, 1990, he made his Carnegie Hall début, with a program of Schumann, Prokofiev, Liszt, and Chopin. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of concertgoers waited outside Carnegie’s stage door for autographs, and the reviews were unanimous in their praise.
In 1991, the Kissins invited Anna Pavlovna to live with them. At the end of that year, the Kissins left Moscow for New York to facilitate Genya’s growing international career. In New York, Genya’s command of English progressed rapidly; he is by far the most fluent English-speaker in his family. Settled into an apartment in a modern building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he found New York’s combination of convenience and Moscow-like chaos congenial. He is an avid reader — he likes Russian poetry and musical biographies — but most of his non-performing hours are devoted to music and to the management of his professional life. “Genya’s day-to-day existence is completely focussed on who he is as an artist,” says Charles Hamlen, who, as Kissin’s first American agent, oversaw the pianist’s Carnegie Hall début, and who remains a close friend. “Most of the time he’s either practicing, or performing, or recording, or dealing with the minutiae of his career. There’s an underlying unity between his artistic and personal lives, and the lack of distinction between them is perhaps the cornerstone of his identity.”
Despite the urgings of Kissin’s various managers, he has consistently resisted hiring a personal assistant. He sorts through the vast number of faxes and phone messages he receives every day, discusses them with his family, and makes decisions about them. He makes most of the choices about the pieces he will perform and where and when he will play them. He is often in touch directly with the conductors with whom he likes to work. Edna Landau, who is his manager at International Management Group, an agency whose roster of clients includes sports as well as music celebrities, says, “The only problem about managing Genya is that he’s just too busy to do a fraction of the work for which he’s in demand.”
Kissin’s family remains the center of his social life, and what time he spends away from it is mostly with family and musical friends, many of whom speak Russian. Kissin, who spends more than two-thirds of the year touring, plays approximately fifty engagements. He is usually accompanied by his mother and Anna Pavlovna. Sometimes his father, who is retired, and his sister, who plays only for friends now, come along as well. “Having them with me on my travels is a help,” Genya says, “but it’s also the pleasure of the company.” Anna Pavlovna nods gravely. “For the great part of our lives, we saw nothing, living in the Soviet Union. The days when we were taking Genya Kissin with us are gone. Now are the days when Genya is taking us, and we’re very grateful.”
Emilia Aronovna and Anna Pavlovna are seldom apart now, shopping together for groceries, in Manhattan, talking about piano literature and how fresh the chickens look and Genya’s schedule in a constant pattering dialogue. One critic recalls meeting the pianist just after his Carnegie Hall début. “This,” Kissin said, pointing to his mother, “is my teacher”; then, turning to Anna Pavlovna, he said, “And this is my mother”; then he blushed and corrected himself. Genya’s mother and teacher have always respected each other, and their affection has had twenty years to mature. In her seventies, Kissin’s teacher mixes austere seriousness with twinkling enthusiasm. She adores Genya as much as is mother does, but one feels that her love was harder to earn. She has the solid, square dimensions of a Maillol and piercing eyes. As a teacher, she made it a practice never to touch the keyboard, but to teach by speaking, with an expressiveness that goes well beyond the specific meaning of her words.
Anna Pavlovna and Genya’s mother are still closely involved in figuring out programs, in discussing how much to play and to record. Upon arriving in any new hall, Genya runs through his program. Anna Pavlovna sits in one place to assess the performance, while Emilia Aronovna walks around the hall to check the acoustics and the distortions. Four lives — father, sister, mother, teacher — have been given over to Kissin’s genius and to his enormous earning capacities. (His concert fees are in the highest bracket, averaging twenty-five thousand dollars an appearance.) Kissin seems entirely comfortable with the life of an international virtuoso. “Sometimes I regret that the course of my life was set so early,” he told me one day. “But there was never any way to resist it. There is no way to change who I am. Sometimes I wish — I wish that it were different. I wish that I had had more time to bring myself up, in a different atmosphere, without any pressure. But even if my career had begun later, music would always have been the only thing that was important to me. That I would not change.”
In his spare evenings, Kissin attends concerts and the opera and the ballet, especially to see or hear performers he knows. He has friends of his own with whom he plays chamber music from time to time, and whom he sometimes entertains by playing ragtime — though he has never performed such material in public. When we went to a party in New York thrown by a mutual friend, he was modest and polite, almost offhand, when other guests came over to praise his abilities. Lately, there have been suggestions in the press that he should get out from under the protective umbrella of his family, that he should somehow become more of an all-American young man. (Similar suggestions were lobbed thirty years ago at Van Cliburn, whose mother was a powerful presence in his career.) Kissin bridles at such talk. “I don’t understand why everyone here is so eager to destroy my relationship to my family,” he said in an interview shortly after his arrival in this country. Kissin could no more live a “normal” life than could Prince William, and it is part of his dignity not to try. He has dozens of young female admirers, but, he says, “I haven’t met anyone yet I’d like to spend my life with.”
It used to be commonly thought that prodigies were exceptions to the laws of development — repositories of gifts that were categorically different from those of other children. Increasingly, however, child psychologists see prodigies as individuals in whom the pace of development in a single area is vastly accelerated, but whose developmental processes are not otherwise unusual. Some researchers claim that musical predisposition occurs in children who are hypersensitive to sound, who are driven to order the noise around them, so that it becomes less disturbing. According to the Israeli psychiatrist Pinchas Noy, “The ego… is compelled to attain considerable abilities in order to protect itself… [It] develops a superior capacity to organize auditory stimuli, to discern among their various shades, and, in particular, to transform “painful” stimuli so the [they can provide] gratification and pleasure… Listening to music [becomes] an activity of the ego in the service of mastering auditory stimuli that, in their deeper meaning, are threatening and frightening.” This notion that highly discriminative hearing helps deal with overwhelming sound has been argued persuasively. But music is surely more than the reorganization of traumatic noise, just as love is more than the reworking of early losses.
Music, which is a system of abstract sound, is broadly acknowledged as a precursor to speech — a system of significant sound. Just as deaf children will begin to communicate with physical gestures, deploying them instead of phonemes to initiate colloquy, musical prodigies begin to use musical sounds as a means of conveying information from an early age. Music for them is not a readaptation of the aural experiments of pre-speech; it is speech itself.
Handel sang before he began to talk; music was, in effect, his first language. Arthur Rubinstein’s childhood identification of people was based on the tunes he heard them sing, and he would designate them with these leitmotivs. He expressed his desires through music, singing a mazurka, for example, when he wanted cake. Fortunately, his family was musical enough to be able to decode these communications. Similarly, Kissin interpreted his family, and visiting friends, through musical composition and performance. For prodigies such as Kissin and Rubinstein, fascination with abstract auditory stimuli and the translation of them into concrete meaning represent not a sub-verbal but a super-verbal ability.
The psychologist John Sloboda makes a useful comparison between musical and verbal linguistics: “Musical idioms are not languages, and do not have referential meaning in the way that languages such as English do. They do, however, have complex multi-levelled structural features which resemble syntax or grammar.” This suggests that, as we have long known is true of language, a deep structure of music exists in the brain even before the hearing of tunes, and it can be readily vitalized by exposure to musical sounds. Involvement of parents is crucial to the emergence of this faculty in a child: not only must there be a way to speak musically through either the voice or available instruments but also there must be people present to understand that speech. The anthropologist Robert Garfias has asserted that “the roots of each different music structure are inherent and inseparably linked to the structure of spoken language,” and that “the two are, in fact, a single system, which is acquired from the earliest stages of infancy through the infant’s constant processing of the sounds of human voices around him… I believe that music may be man’s primary means of sustaining a process of socialization.”
The musicologist John Baily has posited that early musical performance is contingent on a child’s acquiring a “motor grammar” — that the physical dexterity required to produce music early in life far exceeds the level of physical coordination that young children otherwise possess. The prodigy, driven to express himself musically, goes through a process uncannily like the process of acquiring Sign among deaf children.
Conversing with Evgeny Kissin over a period of several months, I realized that he talks the way I play the piano. Musical performance is a mode from which I derive pleasure; but though my level of understanding is adequate my expressive abilities are frustratingly insufficient to what I really have to say. So it is for Kissin and speech. His high intelligence and complex modes of thought are indicated, but not expressed, by his conversation. Kissin has a slight speech impediment, a lingering on explosive consonants that then burst forth like popping balloons. His speech is broken by long pauses; there often seems to be nothing organic leading from one word to the next. Every unexpressive word comes out glacially, always lying in proximity to his meaning and never containing it.
I had been playing with linguistic theories for some time before I put them to him. We were sitting in his simply furnished apartment; he and his family were getting ready to pack up for a move to a larger, older apartment nearby. Our meeting was impromptu; I’d called on the phone, and he’d suggested that I come over. We were both rather tired. He was wearing a pair of old, ill-fitting jeans, a greenish shirt, and bedroom slippers. His mother and Anna Pavlovna were shopping, and his father and sister were out of town. We sat in the small room where the piano — a baby-grand Steinway, on loan from the company — stood, its lid closed, its surface cluttered with greeting cards.
I wanted to know something about the structure of a Rachmaninoff cadenza. “This one?” Genya asked, and played six bars. Suddenly, the little room filled — overflowed — with music. On the tape the effect is alarmingly abrupt. There is perhaps ten minutes of conversation, which, as usual, is a bit stilted, punctuated with long silences broken by the staccato of Genya’s speech. And then there is no effort, no forcing, no impediment to communication. Another five minutes of effortful speech, and then Kissin plays two minutes of a Chopin ballade he is preparing for his next season. The sound on my ten-year-old Sony tape recorder was so immense in contrast to the speech that when I first listened to the tape I thought I had bumped the volume control. The notes contained all the feeling absent from the words; the portcullis blocking the inner self from public view seemed to lift. When Genya played, what I heard was a yearning to be understood — the primary source of the beauty of his music. While we had been talking, Genya had several times had to suppress a yawn, explaining that he had not slept well the previous evening; when he was playing, the exhaustion disappeared from his face. It was not the polished way he would perform for a concert audience, and when he performs the piece next year he will doubtless add studied subtleties and intricacies. He was playing only to indicate passages to which I had alluded; but I knew we had by then come to like each other, and I felt, for the first time since we met, that we were in full conversation, that he was conveying something immediate, personal, and emotional. It was like receiving a confidence or a declaration of friendship, as intimate as a physical embrace. I wanted to respond to what I had heard, but I do not speak that language, and when Genya stopped playing I reverted to words, thus bringing him back to words. It was like dragging clouds back across a momentary sun.
I asked whether he thought speech sometimes fell short of conveying his feelings. “Speaking in words is much less for me,” he said. “In fact, I don’t even know how to convey through speech at all. What I have to say, the music says it. And I don’t like to try to speak about the music, either; it speaks for itself. For me, there is no translating this.” The fact that music is, in effect, a first language no more guarantees brilliant use of that language than the fact that English is the first language for most American children means that they will all be poets. Apollinaire famously said that artists fall into two categories: that of the perfect virtuoso, who exploits an unmediated “natural” gift (the usual model for the prodigy), and that of the reflective artist, who builds insight around experience. Kissin has managed to enact a musical transformation from the former model to the latter.
His task is to discover the “truth” of the work he is playing through the assertion of his own “truth.” For him the world is literally bounded by music. He reminds me of Wallace Stevens’s’ vision of the supreme artist, the beachwalker in the poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” for whom “there never was a world… Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”
I asked Kissin what he would do if his career were to go awry. “I never thought of it,” he replied, “but if my career were suffering, I would be able to find comfort only in music, in the piano. I don’t know how I would be able to live if I suddenly became unable to play.” For him, music makes sense of the world by ordering — rebalancing — its forces, and it is for this reason that his playing seems to make sense of the world for his audiences. Communicating is supremely important for him. He often has extra seats placed around him on the stage, right next to the piano itself, so that additional people can attend his concerts. “It’s strange, but the more people there are in the hall, the better I play,” he said. “It’s necessary for me to play a piece in public to master it. The whole perception changes. I feel people’s attentiveness, and my performance depends on it.”
Is Kissin growing as an artist? Already — at twenty-four — he is the subject of doubts of the sort voiced recently by Bernard Holland, the Times music critic. “I’m troubled by the uniformity of his approach,” Holland said. “He is without question the great talent of his generation. But though he’s above the ‘Soviet School,’ he is still restricted by it. He has been trained to see music as big, as complicated, as aloud, as speed. Some music is not so grand. When I heard Kissin play five years ago, I thought this kid has got it all; he’s new to the West and he’ll get over these Soviet habits and be the greatest artist. I heard him this January and he hasn’t undergone any real evolution. What Kissin does is terrific for some music, but I’m sad that such an enormous talent has been channelled into such a one-size-fits-all style.”
I would put the matter differently. Kissin’s playing is always imaginative, but the unchanging imagination, no matter how rich, can easily go stale. He expresses little interest in contemporary music, and so he continues to play — beautifully — pieces that have been played beautifully for sixty, a hundred, two hundred years. His interpretations are entirely his own, but it is possible that he needs to do something else, something new, something beyond mere brilliance. The contemporary-minded critics who hold that historicism is deadly say that what Kissin is doing — some Mozart, some Beethoven, Schumann, lots of Chopin and Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev — is merely repetitive. There is scant evidence that playing new music renews pianistic talent, venturing into less familiar musical territory could only enrich Kissin’s palette. Itzhak Perlman has said, “You can’t play a Beethoven violin concerto for the five hundredth time and expect it to be always fresh. It wasn’t written to be played that many times by one person.”
“Is he playing it safe?” Hamlen asks. “In the first place, what Genya chooses to perform is not all that he is playing. What we see in performance is certainly more circumscribed than what’s happening artistically. In any event, he’s certainly not stagnating. Everything he plays is surprising because he makes it surprising. He can’t play anything in a routine way because playing itself isn’t routine to him.”
Inevitably, because of his phenomenal early celebrity and pianistic grandeur, Kissin gets compared to Van Cliburn. He seems to have moved into the post-prodigy phase with somewhat greater ease than the Texan did, but although part of Cliburn’s deterioration was personal — he was seduced by glamour in a way that Kissin will not be — he also suffered from a failure to expand his musical reach, and his favorite pieces and favorite composers became as dull for his audiences as they must have become for him. The contemporary pianist has at his disposal the largest repertoire ever composed for any solo instrument. Although Kissin is still in what one hopes are the early stages of a career that could run another sixty years, he seems to have no clear plans for the long-term shape of his vocation. Indeed, in his playing itself there is a tremendous forward propulsion that can sometimes seem as though it is hastening urgently toward no particular goal.
Of Camille Saint-Saëns, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest prodigies, who lived in the constant sunlight of adulation, Hector Berlioz said, “He knows everything, but he lacks inexperience.” Evgeny Kissin’s gift has never led him to laziness, and the protectiveness of his family and his teacher has not prevented him from having the emotional experiences that inform true art. When I asked him how he had managed to avoid the prodigy burnout of so many wunderkinder, he said, “Simply this: I was brought up well, in a proper way.” Perhaps the challenge for Kissin lies not so much in gaining worldly experience as it does in engaging in greater struggles, in finding greater fear of the piano literature. Next year, he will take six months off from his relentless touring and recording, simply to think and play for himself, as he has not had time to do since his career began. What might come of such a sabbatical? He said cryptically, “Life itself will show me what to do.”
Watching Kissin sit down at the piano is like watching a lamp get plugged in: decorative though it may have seemed before, it is only when electricity courses through it that its real use becomes apparent. You do not feel so much that he is pouring energy into the instrument as that he is receiving energy from it. His hands seem actually to belong to the piano. In June, I went to the Barbican Hall in London to hear Kissin perform the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto. It was one of the most magnificent concerts I’ve ever heard.
Kissin is Rachmaninoff’s stylistic heir: his playing has the non-neurotic, Tolstoyan sweep of the older pianists. At the beginning of the concerto, his posture was tense. During the orchestra’s account of the beautiful opening theme, he tugged for a second at his lower lip, as he does when he is deep in thought. But finally, when he began to play, it was as though Zeus had descended among the mortals. In order to articulate the immensely complex structures of the first movement, Rachmaninoff doubles the piano line with, variously, the cello, the flute, the horn. Kissin’s hands made everything clear — one’s ears did not need those crutches to follow this torrential work. Despite the speed of many of the passages, the motion of Kissin’s hands was always legible — as if they were moving in sign language. At the concerto’s end, there was a long moment of silence, then a standing ovation. I was sitting with Emilia Aronovna and Anna Pavlovna. Genya’s mother counted the number of people standing, while his teacher stayed in her seat. “I think it was good,” she said, and I supposed that she was recalling her first encounters with that vast childlike imagination, which under her tutelage had only continued to expand. Kissin was unable to explain the performance. Later, he said, “I just start playing a piece again and it sounds different, not because I want it to sound different but simply because I myself have changed. Pushkin said, ‘I live in order to think and to suffer.’ Life itself brings change.”
I recalled another Kissin concert I’d attended several weeks earlier, in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, where the audience seemed composed largely of local businessmen and their wives. The recital concluded with a Kissin specialty, the monumentally difficult Brahms “Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” which he played without boundaries or edges. The applause was tumultuous. Kissin stood up, bowed his stiff bow, and walked off-stage, looking as placid as though he’d just finished lunch. The applause redoubled, and he came back on, gestured up to the balconies, bowed again, and smiled, apparently delighted to discover that all these people had enjoyed what he himself had so evidently enjoyed. For his first encore, he played a Chopin mazurka. It was charming, and the audience clapped merrily. He took a few more bows, then played Weber’s “Perpetuum Mobile.” Applause; bows. Then Brahms’s Hungarian Dances Nos. 6 and 7. After that, some of the concertgoers, perhaps thinking that the encores were over, began to file out of the hall. More bows; then Kissin played a Chopin waltz. Applause, bows, then a fifth encore: Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny,” in an interpretation so playful that the audience burst out laughing.
A game had started: encore, applause, bows, encore. The ovations seemed to challenge Kissin to keep playing. He played the Adagio from the Bach/Busoni Fantasy, Adagio, and Fugue, then Chopin’s E-Minor Waltz, after which a woman rushed to the stage, attacked a floral arrangement, grabbed an anthurium, and handed it to him. Next came Rachmaninoff’s legendary encore, his own Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, which was followed by the stamping of feet.
They would not let Kissin go. After he had played the Brahms Intermezzo No. 6 from Opus 116, Kissin took six curtain calls. Then a man in one of the upper balconies leaned out, spread his hands like a conductor, and began to clap slowly and rhythmically. Soon the entire audience was clapping in unison. Kissin reëmerged and shrugged. Wearing a genial but slightly blank expression, he played the Rondo alla turca from Mozart’s A-Major Sonata. More rhythmic clapping. After six more curtain calls, Kissin sat down to play the Intermezzo from Schumann’s “Carnival.” After the twelfth encore, someone shouted “Tchaikovsky!” and Kissin, nodding the way rich people acknowledge small charities, sat down and played a Tchaikovsky waltz. Now the audience clapped and stamped in unison, so insistently that the whole building began to tremble. Kissin seemed bewildered. He walked on and off the stage a dozen times before his final encore — the Brahms Rhapsody from Opus 119. It was as colorful and fresh as the first notes he had played that night.
By now, it was well after midnight. “Come,” an older women said, stopping her husband’s hands as he clapped. “The boy should go to sleep.” Finally, the applause petered out. Kissin did not reappear.
At the stage door, a crowd pressed tight. A guard held people back, letting in thirty or so, then a few more, and then a few more. I got past the guard to find Genya standing backstage, nodding his formal nod to the congratulators and signing “Kissin” in Roman letters on the pieces of paper they held out: photos of him, albums, programs. He smiled politely while one fan and then another posed with him for a snapshot. After he had given perhaps a hundred and fifty signatures, his mother came out of the dressing room. She took his arm very gently and said something in Russian. The disappointed fans who had not got his signature took pictures as he walked between her and Anna Pavlovna to a waiting car. As the engine started, a last round of applause, loud and pulsing, went up from the crowd. When the car was gone, people turned to one another — surprised, apparently, to find themselves on an ordinary spring night in Bergamo. “It’s late,” the man standing next to me said. “Terribly late,” he said, before disappearing down the dark street, as though to explain the sudden silence.