Simply Genius: An interview with Evgeny Kissin
At the age of eleven months, Evgeny Kissin was singing the theme from a Bach fugue that his sister, Alla, was playing on the piano. At two years old, he began to play piano himself, and at age six he played for the renowned teacher Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who accepted him into her studio at the Gnessin School of Music for gifted children in Moscow. When he was eleven, Kissin gave his first recital, and a year later he performed both Chopin piano concerti in his debut in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Tours of the Soviet Union and adjacent countries followed, and soon he was playing in Budapest, Belgrade, Berlin, and across Western Europe and Japan. Today he is one of the most sought after and highly acclaimed pianists in the world, receiving standing ovations from enthusiastic audiences wherever he plays.
Kissin was the youngest artist ever to be named Musical America's Instrumentalist of the Year (1995) and to receive the Triumph award for outstanding contribution to Russian culture (1997), one of the highest honors awarded in Russia. He is the recipient of a Grammy Award and Russia's Shostakovich Award, and he is an honorary member of London's Royal Academy of Music. He holds honorary doctorates from the Manhattan School of Music, Hong Kong University, and the University of Jerusalem.
As the critic Mark Zilberquit once noted, "He was never a child prodigy, but a small genius. Now he is just a genius."1 Upon meeting with Kissin and being moved to tears by his performance of the Chopin Fantasy in F Minor, the conductor Herbert von Karajan was reported to have said, "Genius."2
This is my third interview with Evgeny Kissin, and it took place in a small café in New York City, down the street from the building where he resides with his family when he is in the United States. My second interview with him was published in Clavier (September 2004), and the ﬁrst one, conducted when Kissin was just nineteen years old and still very new to the English language, remains unpublished.
Before I could even ask a question, Evgeny wanted to express some initial thoughts:
I dislike talking about music for the simple reason that music for me is far beyond words. I appreciate the fact that there are individuals like you: music critics and music journalists for whom it is a profession to talk and write about music. I do appreciate that, but to me personally, it almost feels vulgar to verbalize music; my natural feeling is that music simply is high above verbal descriptions.
I also believe that anyone can learn to love music, but he or she has to be introduced to it in the right way. In order to do that effectively, however, a teacher must have a special gift and special skills. I have neither the skills nor the talent to do that sort of thing—I am best at playing the piano and making music.
What particular works do you think you play best?
I think it is better to list some of favorite performances by other pianists. These serve as prime examples for me:
Julius Katchen: Brahms, Concerto No. 1 and Sonata No. 3
Samson François: Ravel, "Scarbo" from Gaspard de la nuit (his earlier recording)
Van Cliburn: Rachmaninoff, Concerto No. 3 (1958)
Martha Argerich: Chopin, Preludes, Op. 28, and Schumann, Kreisleriana
Emil Gilels: Beethoven, "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106 (live recording from 1985), and Scarlatti, Sonata in B Minor
Richard Goode: Beethoven, Sonata, Op. 101
Murry Perahia: Beethoven, Concerti Nos. 1, 3, and 4 (Video with the Academy of St. Martins in the Field conducted by Sir Neville Marriner) Artur Schnabel: Mozart, Rondo in A Minor
Stanislav Neuhaus: Chopin, Ballades Nos. 1 and 2
Which performing pianists do you admire most today?
Among them would be Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia, András Schiff, Richard Goode, Krystian Zimerman, and Radu Lupu.
Many critics refer to you as a "musical genius." How can you improve on genius?
If you think so, thank you, but I cannot comment. As Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Work can improve anything.
In my own performances, I'm not always satisﬁed. Each performance is different, and the success of a performance can be inﬂuenced by the size or importance of the concert, the hall, the audience, or a number of other factors.
Whenever I hear you perform live, I'm always amazed at the incredible pianissimos you are capable of producing, with each note distinct and beautifully articulated. How are you able to do this? The arms have to be light, not just the ﬁngers. That's what my teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, always taught me. She told me to make sure that my arms were light and in place, and then the tonal result will be very soft. She also taught me that no matter how softly I was playing, I was to make sure the ﬁngertips went to the bottom of the key. That's how I get my tone to project clearly.
Tell us more about your piano teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor.
She had very small hands and a hand stretch that was limited. As a result, she decided, after graduating with honors from the Moscow Conservatory, to begin teaching at the Gnessin School of Music for gifted children in Moscow. It is here where she established herself as a renowned teacher, achieving fantastic results with her young pupils. She possessed both a natural gift and the necessary skills to achieve these results. It seems to me that teaching small children would be particularly difﬁcult. I think that, in order to teach well, it would also be helpful to be a good child psychologist.
The man who introduced me to Anna Pavlovna Kantor was a friend of our family. His name was Evgeny Lieberman, and he was a well-known pianist and teacher from Moscow. Teaching small children, however, was not his forte, as he himself admitted. Although he tried to give me a few lessons, it didn't work out too well, even though he was a good teacher. So, he introduced us to Anna Kantor. I was taken to play for her, and she accepted me. I was six years old when I began my lessons with her, and she has been my ﬁrst and only teacher.
What made Kantor such a good piano teacher for you?
I have no idea, since she was the only teacher I ever had. Consequently, I have had no one else to compare her to. But I can point out to you one of her strongest attributes. Throughout her entire teaching career she never, ever played for her pupils, because she did not want us to imitate her. She always used words to ignite our imaginations. I'm sure that's why each of her pupils played differently from one another. That was not the case with several of the other teachers, whom I will not mention, that were at our school.
Was she ever tough on you, or was she always encouraging?
She was always both. Tough does not mean discouraging. On the contrary, being tough can be encouraging.
Can you tell us about your technical development? Did you practice scales?
I never practiced scales. As far as technical obstacles are concerned, I learn how to deal with them and work them out as best as I can. If it is purely a technical obstacle, I ﬁgure out what is difﬁcult and work on it accordingly. I cannot think of one method book to remedy that kind of situation. The only method is to ﬁgure out what exactly makes the passage difﬁcult and then to try to overcome that particular obstacle. Each person has his or her own particular technical problems to solve.
Do you get nervous before performances?
My approach to stage fright is to prepare well beforehand and then concentrate on the music straightaway, even before walking onstage. That works for me, and also for some other pianists I know. While I do get nervous before a performance, once I begin playing, the nervousness gradually goes away.
How do you go about learning new repertoire?
I learn new repertoire in various "goes." I usually like to work on new pieces for several weeks. Then I have to put them away for a while, largely due to my concert schedule. I return to them several weeks later, or whenever my schedule allows me to do so. They grow during these interim periods of time, and, when I return to them, the pieces are easier to play.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
From all the pieces there are to choose from, I just go inside my head for the ones I would like to select and play, and, in making those choices, I think of which pieces will sound best together in balancing my program.
What is the most contemporary solo work so far that you've performed?
The Barber Sonata and Prokoﬁev's Eighth Sonata. If not solo, it would be Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, a chamber work that I played in Chicago a few seasons ago with the violist Yuri Bashmet.
Is Ligeti on your list?
Not yet, but then I'm not sure I would ever do his works. I'm not saying no. I'm just not sure. I would definitely like to do Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues. Also, I would like to play some of Olivier Messiaen's works. His pieces apply to everything I love. I have to love the work to play it well.
There is one exception to that, however. I love the second movement of Chopin's Concerto No. 2. It is such an important piece for me because when I perform it, it brings back childhood memories. I first learned the first movement and played it with the second piano for the exam upon finishing fourth grade. The following year, I learned the entire concerto and played the work with orchestra for the first time. The next year, I learned the first Chopin concerto and played both of them in one evening at my big debut in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Even though I don't consider the first movement of the second concerto to be great music, I do love playing the concerto because it brings back my childhood memories, not necessarily specific memories, but more like sensations that come forth from somewhere in the back of my brain.
Do you feel you have had any penalties to pay for your extraordinary talent and this successful but demanding concert career you've had since early childhood?
I don't think that I have been penalized in anything important. For me, I don't think that playing volleyball is important. Okay, it's too late for me to learn to play tennis. Anyway, I could hurt my arm, but then I don't think tennis is that important either. I do think that if a person has a talent or gift, he or she has the duty to realize it and fulfill it. I do wish I had more time to read all the books I want to read. I also enjoy traveling and visiting museums when I can, among other pursuits. But then if I act on my wishes, I cannot possibly go out on stage for a concert and say to the audience, "I'm sorry, I have not prepared well because I felt like going to the museum."
Serge Koussevitzky once related a story to me about a concert he conducted in England. As it happened, one of the musicians in the orchestra was retiring after that particular concert, which included Schumann's Third Symphony. During a rehearsal break, the musician planning to retire came up to Koussevitzky and lamented, "What a good piece of music that Schumann work is, but there's only one problem—it is far too long." Koussevitzky said he looked at him and wanted to say, but instead thought to himself, "What a poor person you are. For so many years you have been living with Schumann, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and the other great composers, and here the most important thing for you is your garden. Finally, you are going to return for the rest of your life to tend your garden. Congratulations to you!"
What advice would you give to young pianists who aspire having a concert career?
One can only give advice to the person one knows.
You mentioned earlier in the conversation that you like to be with interesting people. What makes them interesting to you?
Once when I was in a serious relationship with a woman, I went to an astrologer who happened to be my next-door neighbor in London. She was a famous astrologer, well known in England and other parts of Europe as well as the United States. Though she was my neighbor, I may have seen her once a year. But I ﬁnally sought her out and arranged to have a professional consultation with her, and when I did get to see her, I provided her with the pertinent details about both myself and the woman I was dating. She had never seen the woman, nor did she know her name, yet she was able to provide the most precise description of both of us. She said about me, "Of your ten planets, you have seven in the air and none on earth. That's why you do not care about material things; you are interested in ideas and that's why you like spending your time with interesting people who provide you with those ideas." One could not describe me any better.
How else would you describe yourself?
I think all my friends would tell you they can rely on me. Maybe to have a better description of what I'm like as an individual would be provided by consulting my fan club sites on the internet. There are two in particular I'll give you. The ﬁ rst is: kissin.dk. The creators of this site live in Denmark even though they originally are from Poland. Once on the site, click on library, and there you will ﬁ nd all sorts of information. The other site is: evgenykissinFansite.co.uk, and there it will be easy to ﬁ nd some more information. Although one has to sign up to register, once registered, just get on the website and click on forum. I even recall once engaging in an interesting discussion with someone on this forum. Readers will learn more about my personal traits on one of those sites than I could tell you.
Recollections of the young Evegny by his mother, Emilia Kissin
What set my son apart from others most, of course, were his musical gifts. Other things that also set him apart that I can recall: since very early on he loved improvising music—in particular, improvising "musical portraits" of his friends and acquaintances. He also loved writing poetry and short stories. He had a very good memory and memorized poems, short stories, and even children's novels, and he loved reciting them.
Since very early childhood he adored listening to music. Even before he started playing the piano, he used to sing and then asked his sister, Alla, to play what he had just sung. He listened to lots of LPs we had at home—very mature repertoire. For instance, his favorite piece of music when he was about ﬁve years old was Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which he sometimes listened to all day long.
When he started writing down his own music (after he began his music studies), as soon as he opened his eyes in the morning, he would start writing. He had music paper and a pencil next to his bed.
As for his personality, Zhenya was both very shy and naughty. He was also cheerful, active, and imaginative with his friends. Although he studied at a music school for gifted children, he was never vain nor was he interested in school marks. Recollections of the young Evgeny by his mother,
Just a few more personal questions, if I may. Do you believe in an everlasting life?
Yes, otherwise it would simply be unfair. We have such a rich life, and so many things are happening to each and every one of us. I think it would be unfair if one day all of it would suddenly disappear. Life would have had no meaning if we were just small particles of sand in the universe that disappear and then that is the end of it.
What is your greatest fear? For myself?
That I may die in an accident.
Your greatest joy?
I'm thinking of whether or not to say it because it's intimate. But I understand that if you ask me what my greatest fear is than the natural question is to ask me about my greatest joy. There are two, but it would not be honest to name one and not the other. I'll just give you this quote by Pushkin, who wrote: "Of the pleasures of life, only love is stronger than music, but then love is also a melody."
Do you think you will ever marry?
I hope so. I don't want to just marry any woman for the sake of getting married—only the woman I love.
If you could spend twenty-four hours as someone else, who would it be and why?
There is a Yiddish proverb: "If I am like someone, who will be like me?" But to answer your question, no, I wouldn't want to be anyone else even for twenty-four hours. If I had an opportunity to be born again, I would like to be born at exactly the time and place where I was born. I had a wonderful childhood that provided me with so many special and cherished memories. As for now… I can say, I am very happy.
But then, if you're Evgeny Kissin, why shouldn't you be!
1 An ordinary genius. (2000, March 3). The Guardian. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com.
2 Prokhorov, V. (2004, January 1). The prodigy. The Guardian. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com.