Evgeny Kissin: the heart and wisdom of a prodigy Young pianist plays with feeling beyond his years

February 07, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Boston -- Evgeny Kissin is rehearsing the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with the Boston Symphony. The music pours out of the young Russian pianist: It is brilliant, it is majestic, it is sensuous and -- something scarcely, if ever, heard in this virtuoso concerto -- it is consoling.

Where these qualities of heart and wisdom come from in this 21-year-old -- the most talked-about young pianist in the world today -- is a mystery much discussed. When Kissin's first recordings as a 12-year-old began to filter through the pre-perestroika Iron Curtain, a joke made the rounds of piano aficionados: The KGB had found a way to transplant the brain of an 80-year-old master into the body of a boy.

At a post-rehearsal reception for Kissin, Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa and executives of BMG Classics' RCA Victor Red Seal label, who were in Boston to record the concerto for release later this year, Ozawa handed Kissin the orchestra's 74-year-old copy of the score. It showed the cuts that the composer himself made when he played the piece with the orchestra in 1919; the tempo modifications that Vladimir Horowitz asked for in 1932; and the various requests made by every pianist who has since played the Rachmaninoff Third in Boston.

"This is a real historic treasure," said Kissin as he held the score reverently.

Four days later, when the performances of the piece were over, the pianist is asked if he was self-conscious about playing a concerto that has been identified with so many great pianists.

"Self-cautious?" he says with puzzlement. No, conscious, he is told. "Would you wait a moment, please?" asks Kissin as he leaves the room and returns with a well-thumbed Russian-English dictionary. Although he speaks English fluently -- Kissin and his family have been residents of New York's upper West Side for more than a year -- he likes to answer questions precisely and uses them as opportunities to improve his English.

"Yes," he says, indicating that he understands the question. "No," he says, declaring his answer. "At least, I don't think I was," he adds politely, trying to give the impression that he does not think the question stupid.

At 21, Evgeny Kissin is already being compared to the greatest pianists, living or dead, of this century. Three major record labels -- Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classics as well as Victor Red Seal -- are falling over themselves to record him. Audiences cannot seem to get enough of him -- his performances of the Rachmaninoff two weeks ago in New York were the season's hardest-to-find tickets, and his Chopin recital this Saturday at the Kennedy Center was sold out last month. Conductors line up to work with him. The late Herbert von Karajan made some of his last public appearances as Kissin's accompanist, and when Carlo Maria Giulini records the Schumann Concerto with him in Vienna this spring, Kissin will be only the second pianist to record with that great maestro in almost 20 years. (The other one was Vladimir Horowitz.)

It's understandable that Kissin fears that people may feel stupid asking him questions. In many respects -- musical ones, certainly, and perhaps in a few others -- he left most of the rest of us behind long ago. At 2 years of age, he was singing perfectly the melodies he heard his 12-year-old sister, also a pianist, play; at 4 1/2 , although he could not read music, he was playing difficult pieces by ear; and by the time he was 11 -- after five years of formal study -- he gave his first recital in Moscow, making heads shake indisbelief and causing talk of a wonder child who was about to put Horowitz out of business.

According to the well-known Russian emigre pianist Vladimir Feltsman, who heard Kissin play the two Chopin concertos in Moscow in 1984 ("He was amazing," Feltsman says) and then heard him repeat the two concertos in his American debut in 1990 ("He was even better," he adds), Kissin's secret is simple.

"A few people get marked by God, and he's one of them," Feltsman says.


Although very shy, Kissin radiates a sweetness of nature that seems otherworldly. There is something of the supernatural about him and something that suggests science fiction. The curly hair piled high -- as if driven by electricity -- over his head suggests Elsa Lanchester in "The Bride of Frankenstein." His gangly body features almost unbelievably long arms and fingers. All this is topped by a head seemingly too big for his slender neck that, when Kissin's timidity gives way to his natural warmth and gentleness, calls to mind E.T.

He seems both older and younger than his years. A few minutes after a visitor enters the sitting room of his suite at Boston's posh Four Seasons Hotel, Kissin suddenly bolts like a startled deer. With a look of embarrassment, he takes backward steps toward his bedroom, throws up his arms as if to block the view, and slides the French doors closed. The bed is unmade, and the room is a mess.

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