Evgeny Kissin was the kind of child prodigy who made people believe in the possibility of a Mozart. Before he was 10, students and teachers at the Gnessin School for Gifted Children in Moscow whispered that Kissin talked to God. His first public concerts at 11 made him the talk of the city. And when his first recordings as a 12-year-old began to filter through the pre-perestroika Iron Curtain, a joke made the rounds among piano aficionados: The KGB had found a way to transplant the brain of a master into the body of a boy.
Less than six years after moving to the United States with his family, Kissin, 24, is the most sought-after, most talked-about pianist in the world. In Japan, where he holds the status of a rock star, hundreds of teen-age girls typically line up at the stage door after his concerts, clasping his records and hoping for an autograph.
His appearance tonight in Meyerhoff Hall caps a busy season that began last fall with a performance of Tchaikovsky's First Concerto that opened the Carnegie Hall season and was later broadcast on PBS' "Great Performances" series. The New York Times called Kissin's Tchaikovsky Concerto the best the city -- classical music's international crossroads -- had heard in years.
New York is now home to Kissin and his close-knit family, which includes his first and only teacher, Anna Kantor. A visit to their large apartment on the upper West Side does not reveal the kind of lifestyle one expects of a pianist whose fees range from $25,000 to $40,000. The living room is furnished with an unpretentious sofa and rug; the dining room is only an alcove off the hall that connects the kitchen to the living room. What does impress is a large collection of books -- Kissin reads voraciously in both English and Russian -- and a large number of records and CDs, including many historical performances, which reflect the pianist's interest in the old-fashioned virtues of open-heartedness and beautiful sound that distinguish his own playing.
In mid-December, Kissin, who travels with his mother and teacher, had just returned from a five-week tour of Europe, where he had given three recitals and made 11 concerto appearances. He seemed relieved to have returned home to his adopted city.
"America is not like Russia, where you're always identified by your ethnic origins; it's not like European countries, where you're always considered an outsider," Kissin said. "In New York, you can feel at home because almost everybody is from someplace else."
Emilia Kissin, the pianist's mother, brought tea and cakes to the dining room before joining the pianist and his teacher to talk about Kissin's early years.
Although she is a pianist herself, Emilia Kissin never gave her son a piano lesson, never taught him to read music and never wanted him to become a musician.
"Music education in Russia is so serious and so professional from the beginning," she said. "I didn't want my son hurt and didn't want him to lose his childhood."
"But all the signs were there," her son added, "that music was what I wanted to do."
From the beginning, the child did everything that Mozart was reputed to have done.
At 14 months, Kissin hummed on pitch the melodies his mother and his 12-year-old sister, Alla, played. At 2, he played the piano by ear. And at 6, he composed music, improvised with complicated harmonies, transcribed orchestral works heard on the radio and phonograph and played by ear works as difficult as Chopin's A-flat Ballade. Emilia Kissin finally relented and brought her son to Kantor, who had a reputation at the Gnessin School as an extraordinary teacher of extraordinary children.
"He was a little, little boy, with big wide eyes and curly, curly hair," says Kantor, 72, as she draws imaginary saucers around her eyes and pats imaginary curls piled high over her head.
He was also the most prodigiously gifted child she had ever encountered.
Vincent Lenti, director of the Eastman School of Music's preparatory division and a nationally recognized expert on teaching musically gifted children, says that an untutored 6-year-old able to improvise with complicated harmonies and to play by ear music as challenging as Chopin's A-flat Ballade is beyond rare.
"I don't like to say that anything is unheard of," says Lenti about Kissin's early achievements. "But I've never heard of anything like it, and neither has anyone else I know."