The New York Times
December 6, 1992

Classical Music in Review


Yevgeny Kissin -- THE 21-year-old Russian pianist who is being talked about in terms of Vladimir Horowitz, who is a throwback to the old Russian Romantic style, who is currently the hottest item on the international circuit of classical pianists, who is a child and beneficiary of the new Russian revolution -- was fooling around at the piano. He was playing not Chopin, not Liszt, not Rachmaninoff but Scott Joplin rags. He adores Joplin.

"Why not play one of them as an encore in your American recitals?" he was asked. "Or, better yet, why not a rag by a living American?"

"What rag?" Kissin (pronounced KISS-in) wanted to know.

The music of William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost," a charming tribute to the ragtime of the past expressed in contemporary harmonic language, was placed before him. Kissin read it off easily and said he liked it.
A few days later, the subject of the Bolcom rag came up. Kissin went to the piano and played it perfectly, from memory, after that one previous brief exposure to it.

Guenter Hensler tells a similar story. Hensler, president of the record company BMG Classics in New York, watched Kissin listen to a recording of Gershwin playing his own music. Kissin asked that it be played a few more times, then went to the studio piano "and duplicated everything. Without the music, of course."
Feats like that scare Kissin's colleagues. All good musicians have remarkable memories, but very few have the almost freakish ability to memorize a piece on one run-through and later translate the memory into finger response. Franz Liszt could do that. So could Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), who played a Beethoven concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic at age 9 and who went on to become one of the all-time great pianists. But they, like Kissin, are the exceptions, even among the elite.

On his concert tours, Kissin travels without his music. It is all in his head and fingers. On Jan. 27 and 28, New York will be hearing him in Carnegie Hall, where he will be playing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony.

At his concerts, this serious, taciturn young man does not expend any particular effort to woo an audience. Tall (about six feet), slim, with bushy hair, he emerges from the wings of the concert hall and approaches the piano with rapid steps, back straight, arms held stiffly to his sides. He bows and, that chore over with, intently addresses the keyboard. Seldom, if ever, has he been known to smile on stage.
Daniel Gorgoglione, artists and repertoire director of BMG Classics (which issues RCA Victor Red Seal), once tried to loosen his stage persona.

"Smile, Genya," he urged. "Smile on stage once in a while. Please smile."

"I can't," Kissin told him. "I'm with the music."

"How about afterward?"

"If it was good," Kissin said.

But he still does not smile.

Which does not mean that he lacks a sense of humor. Kissin is a modest young man who is perfectly aware of how good he is, but he never pushes his career or talks about himself unless asked. He is polite, rises when women enter the room, is soft-spoken and seems to want to know everything. Gorgoglione has found that with people he knows, the usually reserved and shy pianist is relaxed and gregarious, dipping regularly into his trove of Russian jokes. Sample: "What's the difference between Communism and capitalism? In capitalism, man exploits man. In Communism, it's the reverse."

Gorgoglione also watched Kissin fence with the press on a recent American tour. A reporter asked him which he preferred: recitals or orchestra engagements. "Why don't you ask me which I like better -- my mother or my father?" Another reporter asked, point-blank, if he had a sense of humor. "Haven't you listened to my performance of the Shostakovich Concerto?" Kissin asked, without cracking a smile. The Shostakovich is full of musical in-jokes that Kissin gleefully brings out. Without cracking a smile.

No matter. Audiences clearly don't mind. Not when he's giving them music-making that is romantic, warm, communicative, sensuous, involved. Kissin is at the opposite pole from the hard-edged, charmless style that is almost universally today's norm. His is a style so old that it sounds new. Professionals have been as charmed by it as have audiences worldwide.

In March, for instance, he played for the first time with the Philadelphia Orchestra. At the first rehearsal, the conductor, Gerard Schwarz, looked at him after finishing the Mozart B flat Concerto (K. 595) and said: "Beautiful music-making, beautiful sound. I'll do anything you want." The Philadelphia Inquirer's music critic, Lesley Valdes, had this to say about the performance: Kissin is "the real thing. . . . A pianist who animates the keyboard. . . . A pianist who believes in the beauty and individuality of tone. . . . He is heir to no one but Horowitz."

Horowitz? Maybe yes, maybe no. But more yes than no. Kissin does not have the Horowitz kind of high-voltage electricity, but he does have the Horowitz freedom and mixtures of sound. He does represent the Horowitz Russian tradition. And he has one other thing in common with Horowitz: an unusual hand position. Professionals wonder how Kissin manages to achieve his exquisite, purling, running passages and nuances of color with hands that seem to flop haphazardly all over the keyboard. He uses an extremely high wrist with fingers often vertical. But, then again, Vladimir Horowitz, with his flat-fingered, wrist-under-the-keyboard approach, was not a model of "proper" pianistic technique either.

And there is still one more thing Kissin has in common with Horowitz. He loves American films, especially the old ones, and has avidly been reading up on the history of American cinema and its heroes and heroines. Any favorites? Well, he admits, Rita Hayworth was a remarkably beautiful woman.

KISSIN CONSIDERS HIMSELF A Russian pianist, and he knows that his musical approach is in the tradition of the 19th-century Anton Rubinstein and the old Slavic school, with its warm sound. "That and deep emotions are part of the old Russian character," he says. "It is a paradox. We always have been totalitarian, but the big expanse of our country gives a feeling of freedom. It is something that the Germans have never understood. They are famous for their order."

He is talking about what has been going on in the former Soviet Union. After all, he grew up in a totalitarian state and watched it disintegrate, to his and everybody else's astonishment.

"I'm lucky," he says.


"Yes. I grew up in the time of the explosion, in the formative stage of my personality. I watched a new Russia come into being. When I was born, Brezhnev was the party chairman. I never thought much about politics while I was growing up. I remember looking at the television news in Moscow when I was about 10 and listening to the report of Leonid Brezhnev's death. I thought the world had come to an end."

Even though the Soviet Union at that time was a country with restrictions on personal liberties, it made no difference to Kissin. Performing musicians suffered less from the ideology forced upon other artists. How much Communist ideology was there in a Chopin etude? And one other thing: the Communists took care of talented children, sending them to special schools that impeccably trained them. Such great performers as the pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, the violinist David Oistrakh and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich reached artistic maturity under Stalin's dictatorship.

So Kissin, sent to one of those special schools, grew up perfectly content with his lot. Then Mikhail Gorbachev came on the scene. With Gorbachev came glasnost, and for the first time Kissin's parents murmured to him the bad things of the previous Communist regimes. Up to then they had been afraid even to whisper. The K.G.B. was always around the corner. For all they knew their apartment was bugged.

"With Gorbachev," Kissin says, "there was a glimmer of hope. When I was 12 or 13 I was sent out for concerts in the bloc countries -- Budapest, East Berlin and Belgrade. With the new liberalization under Gorbachev, my parents soon could travel with me. I played in Japan in 1986, when I was 15. My mother and teacher came along. I never knew how repressed we in Russia were, how little there was in the stores. Japan made a big impression on me. The clothes, the cars -- impressive. But I am not oriented that way. But the food ! So much of it! I fell in love with Japanese food. Also Disneyland. There is nothing like that in Russia." The 15-year-old Kissin had the time of his life going on a roller coaster for the first time, playing carnival games, traveling through the spooky Disney tunnels.

During last year's attempted coup, Kissin was taking a vacation at one of the retreats of the Union of Soviet Composers outside Moscow. "All of us were frightened," he recalls. "We kept glued to the television. Everybody was hearing rumors. I was told I might be drafted into the army. That was the big rumor. I got ready to flee with my family. I started to teach my mother and sister a few words of English. A lady told me she would hide me in her closet if the militia came. When the television news kept on being vaguer and vaguer, we knew that something was going on, but of course we did not know the details. After it all ended, we respected Yeltsin very much."

Kissin makes no predictions about the new Russia: "I am not an astrologer. Capitalism will take a long time in our country. But I am happy that the empire has broken up, even if right now there is anarchy. I understand that the United States has many problems. Compared to what Russia is facing, they are insignificant."

Kissin and his family, however, are not going to give up their Moscow apartment, and, in fact, have just bought it. Their roots are there, and they intend to remain citizens of their country, even though they have rented an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They consider themselves Russians. Or, as Kissin puts it, "In the West, I am considered a Russian. In Russia, I am considered a Jew. But it is still my land."

BORN IN THE 19TH century, pianists like Hofmann, Josef Lhevinne, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Sergei Rachmaninoff were exemplars of Romanticism, a term generally misunderstood today. Kissin represents that style, and it has all but vanished. Only a few of the younger pianists have a real affinity with the Romantic style. There is Eduardus Halim, a 30-year-old Indonesian who studied with Horowitz. There is the 17-year-old Russian Eldar Nebolsin, winner of the Santander Piano Competition in Spain in August, already a patrician artist. And there is the 16-year-old Anna Kravtchenko from Ukraine, who won the Busoni Competition in Bolzano, Italy, in September. She reminded old-timers on the jury of Guiomar Novaes, the late Brazilian pianist whose radiant sound and poetical interpretations could sometimes reduce audiences to tears.

Part of Kissin's Romantic approach to music came from his teacher, the only one he has ever had. She is Anna Pavlovna Kantor, a Moscow Conservatory graduate who has devoted her life to teaching at the Gnessin School in Moscow. But most of it came from Kissin's own visceral, instinctual response to the meaning of the printed notes. Kissin realized from the beginning what Pablo Casals kept saying: "It is not enough to read the notes. You must read between the notes."

Thus Kissin uses the music to express himself as well as the composer. From some mysterious source he has plucked from near oblivion the old Romantic devices: constant, delicately applied fluctuations of tempo held under a perfect synthesis ofemotional and intellectual control. In contrast to an age of skillful but pedantic and percussive piano playing, he produces a keyboard sound that is melting, never stressed.

YEVGENY KISSIN, born in Moscow on Oct. 10, 1971, is known to his family and close friends as Genya (pronounced ZHEN-ya). His father, Igor, an engineer, is a short, smiling, pleasant man who finds the United States "astonishing." His mother, Emilia, a pianist and teacher, is a well-groomed woman who keeps careful watch over her son. Genya has a sister, Alla, who is 10 years older. Shy and withdrawn, like her brother, in the presence of strangers, she is an accompanist in Russia. A close-knit family, they are seldom apart. Genya's mother and his piano teacher accompany him on many of his tours. Currently, all the Kissins as well as Anna Kantor are in residence in New York.

At the age of 2, Genya insisted on being put on his mother's lap at the piano, and he would pick out melodies and harmonies. When his sister had a lesson, Genya an hour later would be singing the melodies she had been playing. At 3, he listened to Van Cliburn's recording of the Liszt 12th Rhapsody and tried to reproduce it by ear.

But his mother was not sure she wanted him to become a pianist, and she refused to teach him music. Genya, who was prone to respiratory ailments and spent a great deal of time bedridden, had to pick up everything by ear.

Housing conditions in Moscow being what they were, the family lived in a small apartment shared by Genya's grandparents. With space at a premium, Genya slept under the piano. His grandparents found an apartment for themselves when he was about 2 years old, and when he visited them for the first time he looked around for the piano. There was none. That puzzled him. Every home had first to have a piano, and then things like beds, chairs and tables.

When Genya's mother realized that her son had a talent that could not be denied, he was sent, at about age 6, to Anna Kantor at the Gnessin Music School for Gifted Children. When she heard him she was startled.

"He could play everything but didn't know anything," recalls Kantor, a stocky, no-nonsense woman in her late 60's. "He could not even read music." She explained the clefs to him and wrote out the notes. "He picked it all up immediately. The Gnessin School had a high level, but this was inexplicable. Within a month I gave him a Tchaikovsky album of music to look at, telling him to work on three or four pieces. So he memorized all of them at one gulp. He was 6 years old."

She gave him a conventional pianistic education, complete with Czerny studies and Bach preludes and fugues. She never imposed a practice regime and he never adopted one. By the age of 10, she says, he could play almost anything. She knew he was special, and decided that she would help, but interfere as little as possible. At 8, she remembers, he started working on the Schumann "Etudes Symphoniques" without telling her. He memorized the first five variations and found the sixth too difficult. When he brought to her what he had learned, she listened and said: "Very good. But wait until you are old. Wait until 11." At 8, his hands were too small for the stretches. At 11 his hands were almost the same size they are today -- big hands that can stretch an eleventh (C to F).

"He was a nervous type," Anna Kantor says. "Incredibly dedicated and curious about everything. He held things in. He was a very private person who had an inner world of his own but never spoke about it."
He admits he was an introverted child. "When Anna Pavlovna would explain something to me," he says, "there would be no reaction in my face. Finally she would say, 'Have you understood?' I would say, 'Yes, I understood a long time ago.' She got used to it."

While in bed when his lungs acted up, Genya would compose. He wrote his first piece at 7, calling it "Morning Song." At 12, he composed a concerto for piano and band. The earlier pieces are sweet and Schumannesque. The concerto lets the world know that its composer is acquainted with Prokofiev. Kissin no longer writes music. Why? "I don't feel that I have anything important enough to put down on paper."
Normally so gifted a youngster would have gone to the Moscow Conservatory as a teen-ager, but Genya was happy where he was, and remained at the Gnessin until his graduation at 18.

His instincts were correct. Not long ago, he was asked by a reporter why he had remained with the same teacher. "Why fix what's not broken?" he answered. Had he gone to the conservatory, he might have ended up in the hands of a teacher interested only in grooming him for international competitions, shaping him into one of today's mechanical piano robots.

Genya started performing in public at around age 10. In 1984, at the age of 12, he played the Chopin concertos -- two of the hardest pieces in the repertory -- at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and won instant acclaim. When the recording of the performance was issued, he became an international celebrity. After the visit to Japan, the 15-year-old Genya started his European career: West Berlin; Tours, France; Litchfield, England. The winter of 1988 found him playing the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto (Piano Concerto No. 1) with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin. It was not Genya's happiest experience. "Karajan wanted very slow tempos and there was something of a struggle."

He made his American debut in New York in September 1990, playing first with the New York Philharmonic (both Chopin concertos) and then a Carnegie Hall recital on Sept. 30. He was immediately subjected to a blitz, American-style, that put him into the nation's newspapers, news weeklies and television talk shows. As Kissin went from city to city the next year, invariably the music reviews went something like this: "Despite the blitz, here is an artist who lived up to, and even exceeded, the immense publicity that had preceded him."

It is difficult to find a negative review about his playing, and when there is, it generally involves his age. Thus a review in February's Gramophone magazine, England's premier record-review publication, conceded that Kissin "has already proved himself a dramatist of high accomplishment and a poet of the greatest promise. But as a philosopher-pianist his youth inevitably shows." The disk, it so happened, contained music that Kissin has generally avoided -- Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy and late Brahms. Up to now he has concentrated on early Romantic music, for which, headmits, he has the closestaffinity. "I love all music," he says, "but I play Romantic music better." Of course, having been trained in Moscow, he also has a good deal of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in his repertory.

WHEN COMMUNISM DIED, the mighty Goskontsert lost its monopoly. Goskontsert had been the Soviet agency responsible for booking artists and allowing them to appear abroad. Now, with their new freedom, Russian artists could travel at will and work out their own deals. Many left the country for good. Kissin at first signed up with Arts and Electronics, a managerial outfit set up in Moscow. Soon he realized that he needed somebody more experienced about the international musical scene and his advisor, Daniel Gorgoglione, suggested Charles Hamlen.

Hamlen, a pianist, cellist and choral singer, had a concert management bureau in New York with Edna Landau, which was acquired in 1984 by the International Management Group and now has worldwide offices and a roster of distinguished artists. Kissin was interested, and Hamlen flew to Moscow to talk things over with him, his mother and his teacher.

Kissin plays about 40 concerts a season, taking at least two months off, to rest and study new pieces. Hamlen would not divulge Kissin's fee, but informed sources say that it is in the vicinity of $15,000 a concert -- close to the top that a musician of his age, experience and audience appeal can command. When not on tour, Kissin works at the piano every day for at least three hours, often much more. He loves art and has gone to all the New York museums. He keeps up with the news, reads a great deal (currently he is struggling through the poetry of William Blake), goes to the opera (like the new "Ghosts of Versailles," by John Corigliano), meets musicians and sees a few close friends.

Most of those friends are Russian musicians who have come to New York, and many of them, like Vagram Saradjian, a cellist in his 40's Kissin admired in Moscow, are string players. That means chamber music, and there are frequent sessions at one or another apartment, including Kissin's, where he reads through Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and whatever else is on the agenda.

The closest to him are his family and teacher, Gorgoglione, Hamlen and a Russian pianist named Boris Slutsky, 31, who came to the United States about 15 years ago. Slutsky had also studied with Anna Kantor and sometimes serves as an interpreter for Kissin. Although Kissin speaks English quite well, he wants Slutsky around for nuances that might escape him.

Kissin is still concentrating almost exclusively on the Romantics, Chopin through Rachmaninoff, and is willing to wait until he feels equally comfortable in other sections of the musical literature. Recently, Guenter Hensler, who runs BMG Classics in New York, had a talk with Kissin about broadening his recording repertory, suggesting some Beethoven.

Kissin turned him down: "I'm not ready for it. I know all of the sonatas and play many of them, but Beethoven is for later."

Harold C. Schonberg, former senior music critic of The New York Times, is author of "Horowitz: His Life and Music."