Kissin keeps mind on music

Fans may gush, but he remains reserved

April 13, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Superlatives swirl around Evgeny Kissin so routinely that you might take his talent for granted. But any fresh dose of his playing, on disc or, especially, in person, can jolt you back to the reality that this Russian-born pianist would stand apart even in a room brimming with celebrated virtuosos.

Kissin, who gives a recital at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tomorrow night, astounded listeners with a combination of fearless technique and penetrating interpretive ideas before he ever hit puberty.

At 12, he played Chopin's two concertos in a 1984 concert in Moscow that was recorded live. Typical of the reaction is the Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide's declaration that the performances "are among the most phenomenally assured and meteoric of any on record."

At 33, Kissin continues to inspire such gushing. Even those who question a tempo choice here or a particular phrase there are apt to be blown away by the totality of his gifts.

Although capable of sensational bravura, Kissin is not a showman type of pianist. His prowess at the keyboard always seems reserved for the music, not the performer.

And unlike, say, Lang Lang, who delights in embracing an audience, Kissin maintains an Old World reserve onstage. His bows have a military curtness. If he smiles at all, it's likely to be only after the formal part of a program, during encores.

Sitting in a dressing room at the Meyerhoff after testing out the available pianos for tomorrow's performance, the pianist is every bit as serious, and just as sparing with the smiles. He speaks in carefully worded sentences, the occasional British pronunciation coloring his accented English (he lives partly in London, partly in New York).

Asked if he experienced any particular difficulties or extra pressures growing up as a child prodigy in the public eye, rather than as just an ordinary kid, he arches his eyebrows, in the process lifting his distinctively high crop of deep black, curly hair a little higher still.

"Even if my childhood was not a common one," he says, "I was not forced to do anything. I always loved music more than anything else. And I always had control over my life and career. Yes, in Russia, I had to take part in official government galas in the Kremlin, but things like that didn't harm me or my health."

These days, Kissin limits the number of his concert appearances. (He would prefer to limit appearances at the inevitable post-concert receptions, too.)

"The reason that I like to play music in public is that I like sharing with others the things I love," he says. "But I only do around 40 performances a year due to the fact that it is simply too exhausting emotionally for me. And even if I don't practice some days, it's not that I don't think about music. Music is always in me."

Most recently, Kissin has done his sharing with a capacity crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore last week and with another at Carnegie Hall two days ago. He'll return to Carnegie on May 1 to perform four-hand duets by Schubert with James Levine, a concert that will be recorded live.

"I was fortunate that my career went very well from the beginning," Kissin says in a disarmingly matter-of-fact manner. "Very well" is putting it mildly. He has performed in the best places, collaborated with the best conductors and orchestras, and recorded on the best of labels since the mid-1980s.

Through these years of building repertoire, audiences and fame, the pianist has received advice from the same woman who started teaching him at the Moscow Gnessin School of Music when he was 7 - Anna Pavlovna Kantor. She remains his only teacher.

Kantor has long lived in the same house with Kissin and his mother, and often joins him on concert tours.

"She hears me practicing at home," the pianist says. "Sometimes she walks into the room and makes some comment." Does he always like what she has to say? "There can be some minor disagreements, but no significant ones."

Kissin suddenly reveals one of his elusive smiles. "Well, we do argue sometimes, as each one tries to prove his or her point. But she has never insisted on anything that sounded unnatural from under my fingers."

Sounding natural is a major goal for Kissin, and he is a strong judge of when that condition is met. He recalls a rehearsal of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 nearly 14 years ago when the conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy (a major pianist in his own right), and Kantor asked Kissin to try different phrasing in the opening solo.

"They wanted more freedom," Kissin says, "but at that time in my life, I simply hadn't arrived there yet. It didn't sound natural. Later on, I arrived at that interpretive decision myself. I guess I needed time for that."

Like all artists, Kissin's interpretive ideas change all the time, sometimes simply "because I myself have changed over the years," he says.

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