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Virtuosity matters: Evgeny Kissin in between the bar line

Title Capture courtesy of Simone Massoni 

“Pure obsession!” commented a stage manager at the Berlin Philharmonie, when he almost had to escort Kissin off the stage, so it could be prepared for the concert later that night.

“You would think he practiced enough by now.”  Such perplexed responses to his intensity when working at the piano are nothing new to Kissin; as a young boy coming home from school and rushing to the piano with his coat still on he already displayed the same kind of compelling drive: “I made it clear to my Mom even then that I was not to be held back,” remembers ‘Zhenya’, as those close to him call the 41-years-old Kissin.

It might well be that this passion for the piano, in combination with his indomitable spirit have  contributed to making Kissin into the person he is today: an exceptional artist and virtuoso pianist who, undeterred by any potential for negative fall-out, neither shies away from calling his own shots, nor from speaking his mind on a range of issues some would consider not fit for a pianist to comment on. It could be argued that the different facets an artist displays beyond the confines of artistic expression are what provide her or him with the necessary depth to take virtuosity to a deeper level of artistry. A willingness to take risks would certainly be part of this.

Many critics, and certainly his fans, would very much agree on Evgeny Kissin being a virtuoso who, from an early age, ‘pushed the envelope’ in more ways than one. This might explain the effect he already had on his audiences when performing as a prodigy in his native Russia.

“It was as if the heavens had opened up and one could hear the angels,” enthuses internationally renowned violist, Yuri Bashmet, about Kissin’s first recorded performance at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1984.  And for Professor E. Lieberman, back then Assistant Professor at Moscow’s Gnessin Academy of Music, there was no doubt that “… we are confronted with profound, forceful, dramatic and deeply lyrical and optimistic playing demanded by the original.” He continues: “The young artist’s extraordinary technical ability allows him to give utterance to his innermost thoughts, to every movement of his artistic soul.” Evgeny Kissin - the album’s cover shows him with a red Soviet Young Pioneer scarf - was all of 12 years old at the time. To Lieberman, the connection between young Kissin’s technical ability and his ‘artistic soul’ providing greater depth to the pianist’s virtuosity was all but obvious. But there have always been voices that do not value such virtuosity as the highest form of artistic expression, and remain critical of the ‘virtue’ in ‘virtuosity’, which they dismiss as a mere display of technical skill and prowess. Violinist Nicolò Paganini is an example of a musician whose virtuosity attracted a good amount of condescension and disbelief, as writer, pianist and radio personality David Dubal explains in his “Essential Canon of Classical Music”: "Unfortunately, a certain element of charlatanism has always tainted Paganini's name, and since this day, the musical world has been divided over the concept of ‘musician’ versus ‘virtuoso’.Likewise, Kissin’s effortless facility at the piano has not only met with admiration; describing it as ‘a blessing and a curse’, critics have questioned the interpretative qualities of his musical presentations time and again. For others it holds true that any performance is interpretive by its very nature, and that the compositional score solely serves as the blueprint for a performance. To them, it is the performer who crafts his or her unique approach to a musical piece, an approach which eventually culminates in an act of artistic creation on stage, and must be judged on its very own merits.

The great pianist, Martha Argerich, agrees with that view when she points out that Kissin’s compelling interpretations stand entirely on their own. During the 2011 Verbier Festival in Switzerland the two of them rehearsed Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for Two Pianos. “I love him dearly,” says Argerich, “both as the wonderful sincere human being and the brilliant artist that he is.” Kissin during rehearsal at Verbier. Photo: Aline Paley Verbier

For Kissin, “… a great performance of a piece is always its most convincing one.” He is, of course, fully aware of the fact that the term ‘convincing’ can mean different things to different people, and he clarifies that, in his mind, the term has to transport one simple and powerful truth: “Music speaks directly to the heart,” he states, and it is exactly that very direct and unadulterated rapport with his audiences that keeps moving them to tears during his concerts. Not long ago, Kissin told me that he believes in his capacity to also convey strength to those present at his live performances. Many of his fans have told him so in person and by writing to him. Others have mentioned the sense of solace his work at the piano has evoked for them. I must admit that my own experiences add to these sentiments:  When listening to Kissin’s Liszt concerts in Jerusalem and New York a few years ago, I felt ‘elevated’ by the transcendence of his renditions, while his 2011 New Years Eve Concert with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in Berlin provided me with further evidence of the fact that every performance is a unique work of art, and not just a mere display of virtuosity. I had been present when Kissin rehearsed Grieg’s work for the concert, and expected to be listening to that same interpretation during the actual performance later that day. Yet what I witnessed was an all-new and fresh version, offering a different and again unique interpretation. I could sense Kissin pouring his soul into the performance and inhabiting a state of truly ‘being in the music’ - an artist fully engaged in the creative moment.

The main purpose of music is “that it elevates us into the world of the sublime,” Kissin feels, and this sentiment was palpable that night despite the slightly dry acoustics of the Berlin Philharmonic. Yet it was not somber severity that transported the music, but a distinctly life-affirming joie de vivre, which Joseph E. Morgan’s in his Boston Intelligencer review of Kissin performing the same Grieg concerto in Boston several months later called “contagious and exhilarating.” “Of course it is different each time,” affirms Kissin when I commented on the varied nuances he brought to his recitals of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op. 58 at Chicago’s Symphony Hall, and again to his December 2011 performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in E minor op. 11 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta in Tel Aviv. Looking back on a lifetime of working with different pianists, Maestro Mehta stated after the concert: ”There are very, very few artists in the world that can do what Kissin does; he can play between the bar line, prolonging the beat with just enough rubato, so the phrasing becomes completely fluid.”

Photo: With Zubin Mehta, Hanger Tel Aviv with the IPO

Kissin is also known for playing virtually note-perfect. When we talked about mistakes during live performances, he clearly remembered a particular incident where his perfection failed him: “I think it was when I was playing with a fever and got lost, in June 1991 in Vienna, during Brahms’ Intermezzo, Opus.116. No.6. But,” he divulges, “if a mistake happens, I just continue to play. I never memorize music deliberately: It always happens by itself.” Commenting on the performance process, Kissin also remarks on the utmost importance of consciously listening to how the music projects. That is why he considers it crucial to always rehearse in the very venue he is going to perform in. Says Charles Hamlen about Kissin’s credo in action: “I had met with Kissin at the Schleswig Holstein Festival in a dumpy hotel. We went to the decrepit ballroom, and when Kissin started to play, I just wished everyone could be there and hear him.

Sketch (on iPad) by Roman Rabinovich (pianist, visual artist)

There was just so much in the music, it was so elevating.” And when Kissin was rehearsing for a benefit concert to support the “Michael Palm Series of Classical Action” in support of AIDS victims, Hamlen observed: “While most pianists would have only warmed up, Kissin came two days in a row and practiced several hours; a tribute to how seriously he takes every performance.” The ever-changing influences surrounding a live concert, like the acoustics, the emotional engagement of the audience, his own emotional state and his perception of the piece’s voice at that very moment are all relevant components which have been obvious to Kissin ever since he started his existence at the piano as a child, barely able to reach the keys. For him, audiences play a significant part in the process: “During the performance, the audience inspires and encourages natural creativity,” he says, and he humbly admits: “Of course, I don’t always succeed, since it’s difficult while you are emotionally involved in the performing process.”

Photo: Ilona Oltuski, Kissin with Ivry Gitlis, in Verbier

Humility is not necessarily what one would expect from a pianistic superstar. Yet, it is exactly that quality that surprised shooting star pianist Yuja Wang when she first met Kissin at the Verbier Festival in 2009. Kissin had attended one of her recitals, which prompted Wang to finally summon the courage to ask her childhood idol if she could play for him. “I grew up listening and watching his Chopin concerti and his Tokyo recital when he was 16,” she remembers. “I really wanted to play Prokofiev 6th for him, since I love how he played that piece.” Not only did Kissin make time for Wang, he also generously shared his musical insights with her: “What strikes me [most] is how articulate he was,” Wang says. “He had such profound and vivid ideas of every detail. Not only did he evoke the general mood [of the piece] to open up my imagination, he also revealed a deeper level of understanding.”

Photo: Aline Paley

But then, Kissin’s concept of being an artist has always included being supportive to his colleagues. Says Russian violinist, Vadim Repin, who started his Moscow career as the same time as Kissin: ”Since our first time performing in Russia, I knew I could rely on him, as if my life depended on him – on stage and in real life, as well.”  And when Florida impresario, Judy Drucker, fell on hard times, Kissin remembered that it was she who had brought many musicians, including himself, to Florida for the very first time. He reciprocated with a free performance at Drucker’s “Great Artists Series” at Miami’s New World Center to support his friend. And Susanne James, creator of Kissin’s fan site, affirms:”He is the most genuine person, so humble, generous and kind. He tries to send a response to every message fans send to him. There are no other ‘superstars’, who would spare their precious free time to do such a thing, and this, is Kissin’s strength: He treats all of humanity with respect.” ‘Zhenya’ facing his fans (Photo: Ilona Oltuski)

If one believes his former neighbor and family friend, Maryana Arzumanova, Kissin always had a lot of empathy for others. She recalls an occasion where some neighborhood kids, including little Evgeny, entertained their families at the piano. But despite being light years ahead in his piano playing, young Kissin complemented everyone’s performance with great enthusiasm. His ability to feel connected to others and to care about what happens in a wider context, and actively respond to it, might explain his long list of playing concerts in support of causes he considers important. It all started with the first-ever benefit concert at Moscow’s Russia Concert Hall, on September 25, 1987, which was held to raise funds for the renovation of the church where Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova in 1831. He even remembers what he played back then: Mozart’s D-Major Rondo, K.382. Kissin has not stopped throwing his pianistic weight behind different issues ever since, and in 2011 it again was a Russia-related topic he was concerned about. This time, however, it wasn’t about the preservation of a building, but rather about the preservation of the democratic process in his country of birth: Together with Gideon Kremer and Martha Argerich, he played the 2011 “Musica Liberat” - concert in Strasbourg/France which demonstrated against the Russian regime’s imprisonment of Russian liberals and prisoners of conscience, Platon Lebedev and Mkhail Khordovsky. Not afraid to publicly express his political views beyond the concert stages of the world, Kissin also addressed the BBC in December 2009, in an open letter criticizing what he took as anti-Semitic views expressed as part of the BBC’s report on blood labeling in Israel.

‘Zhenya’ with his mentor, Anna Pavlovna Kantor and favorite "managers": his mom and Judy Drucker, in Miami.

“Politics, schmolitics! He is a pianist and should concentrate on that,” fumes his one-and-only mentor, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, when talking about Kissin’s fervor to show face with regard to world affairs. But not even his close relationship with Kantor and the deep respect he has for her can stop him from speaking his mind. His dynamic spirit prevails, just as his fervor for engaging in the unexpected cannot be subdued.

Evgeny Kissin’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the video wonder wall of “Guitar Hero” serves as an example of the latter.  Reports Kissin’s goddaughter, Julia Flatto, daughter of long-time Kissin friend, Olivia, about the pianist’s playful side: “He does not have any inhibition to have fun. He can be very comfortable with letting loose and he does not care; he does what he wants to do.” And remembering some of her childhood encounters with Kissin, she remembers: “He was so genuine with me – nothing was beneath him. Sitting down with me for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, I always felt that he respected me and brought me joy.” Flatto concludes: “To me, he is a fun person and a humble friend. If I ever had an emergency, he would be one of the people I would call.”

In rehearsal at the Verbier Festival: Photo Ilona Oltuski

One may ask where someone who lives his life performing, while, at the same time, remaining accessible to family, friends and fans, gets his inner strength from. The answer to that question may surprise:  “As a child I used to spend summers with my maternal grandparents in our country house outside Moscow, which they had built with their own hands,” Kissin recalls. “They often spoke Yiddish to each other, so I retained a nostalgic feeling for that language since then, and as the years went by, I decided to learn it.”  Many years later, it would be Verbier Festival founder and Executive Director, Martin Engstroem, who further promoted Kissin’s love for the Yiddish language and Yiddish poetry by facilitating Kissin’s first-ever poetry reading during the 2002 Verbier Fesival. “Martin Engstroem asked me to try reciting in public for one season, by integrating poetry recitation into the musical offerings of the festival,” recalls Kissin. “I accepted under one condition: that the other musicians do the same. … Zubin Mehta, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Itamar Golan agreed to participate in the project. … Unfortunately, just before the beginning of the festival, Zubin's father fell gravely ill and died, so Mehta declined to continue with the project. And at the last minute, just a few days before her concert, Kiri Te Kanawa cancelled. Only Itamar and I were left. I was the first to get my feet wet.” More recently, Kissin has recited Yiddish poetry as part of an event honoring Yiddish writer Boris Sandler, at the Center for Jewish History (YIVO) in New York*, and is performing there again on May 7th. Beyond Yiddish language and poetry, a small volume of aphorisms by Leningrad Conservatory piano teacher, Natan Perelman, and brought to his awareness by Anna Pavlovna Kantor, serves as another source of inspiration; Kissin always keeps it at the piano. One of the quotes he regards as quintessential, states: “A musician gets inspired by legends, but music should only be cut out of the marble of music." His own attempts to create a mantra for himself involve a short text he cobbled together as a little boy. “There is a country that is not found on any geographical map,” it starts. “This country is called music.” And in the complexity of that country, virtuosity matters, as do all the elements that feed Kissin’s creative soul. There was another – a real - country that played a big role in the formation of Kissin’s identity. "I had first learned about the State of Israel when growing up in Moscow, in a house built in the 1960s, one of the so-called ‘Chrushtiov's houses’, which were separate flats as opposed to communal flats,” recalls Kissin. “As a child I played in our courtyard and was often harassed by other kids in the neighborhood. I recall many anti-Semitic incidents that profoundly affected me. There were only two Jewish families, our next-door neighbors and my family. One teenager asked me if I knew where only Jews lived; that's how I heard about Israel for the first time.”

To Kissin’s young mind, the place associated with Soviet Jewry was Birobidzhan, a region near the Chinese Border in the Far East of the Soviet Union, which was officially created in 1934. “I thought that place must be Israel,” he remembers. “I identified myself strongly, telling my parents I will move there when I grow up.”

Kissin and the author during an interview at Verbier/Switzerland

Short of being able to move to a place where being Jewish was the norm rather than the exception, young Evgeny found his solace with his instrument: “And where is the piano?” he asked according to his mother when first entering the grandparents’ apartment. Evgeny was two at the time. And when taken to a neighbor’s birthday party, where he felt uncomfortable due to the noise and unfamiliarity of the place, he only quietened down after his mother told him that there was a piano at the neighbor’s place. “I walked all the way along the corridor like a somnambular, sat down at the piano and didn’t leave it until the end of the evening,“ he retells his mother’s recollections. “I live for playing piano, as much and as good as possible,” he says today. Which is what he always did, but in a dynamic and ever-changing manner.

Charles Hamlen who, together with Dan Danieli, brought Kissin to the attention of American audiences, and eventually arranged for Kissin and his family and mentor to come to the United States, sums up why he remains excited about Kissin: “What keeps him so compelling is that he is always growing personally and musically, always questioning and digging deeper. There is no cheapness, it all has integrity.” To which Kissin dryly remarks: “I have never set out to be Evgeny Kissin, but I can’t complain.” On Friday, May 3rd, 2013, Evgeny Kissin will perform a solo recital at Carnegie Hall featuring Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob.XVI:49; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op 111; four Schubert Impromptus D.935 No. 1 and No.3; D.899, No.3 and No. 4; and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 in C-sharp Minor.

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