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Performing Arts

No Choice but to Follow His Muse

Pianist Evgeny Kissin first showed a true gift for music as an infant. He's only doing what nature intended, he says.

September 24, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer

Acclaimed when he was 13 and hailed as the successor to Vladimir Horowitz when he was 21, Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin at 28 has continued to maintain his place among the top artists of our or any time.

Some critics have begun to dissent, but his frenzied fans simply ignore them--flocking to any program Kissin gives.

Next up are recitals at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday and at UCLA's Royce Hall next Sunday. The "Last Great Romantic Pianist," as Kissin is often called, will play works by Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann.

"I never decided to be a pianist because somehow nature decided it for me," the young pianist said in a recent phone interview from his home in London.

"When I was a baby, I was very quiet and my parents were, of course, delighted, but only later they realized the reason for my being so quiet was that I was listening to my sister practicing the piano."

They realized it when he suddenly started singing the music she was playing--the theme of the A-major fugue from the Second Book of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier."

He was 11 months old.

"From then on, I started singing everything I was hearing from my sister, the radio, from recordings."

He heard recordings by Richter, Gilels, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Glenn Gould and, especially, Van Cliburn. His mother, a piano teacher, was "one of his ardent fans," he said.

"At the age of 2 years and 2 months, when I was tall enough to reach the keyboard, I started playing, first with one finger, then with all 10 fingers. So nature decided it for me. It was very clear that I would become a musician."

Maybe, but his mother, Emilia, was wary.

She wasn't sure she wanted young Genya (pronounced ZHEN-ya) to be a musician, and she refused to teach him. But when his talent could no longer be denied, she sent him to Anna Pavlovna Kantor, a Moscow Conservatory graduate who taught at the prestigious Gnessen Music School for Gifted Children in Moscow.

Kantor would be his only teacher. She didn't demonstrate anything for Kissin, as most teachers would do. She just talked about the music and listened to him play. The bond between them is so strong that when Kissin and his family moved to New York in 1991, the year after Kissin made his rapturously received U.S. debut there, she moved with them. She still lives with the family.

While the close-knit arrangement may seem odd to Americans, Kissin finds it supportive and utterly natural.

"I don't understand why everyone here is so eager to destroy my relationship to my family," Kissin once told an interviewer.

Kissin maintains a New York residence, but he and his family have made London their base since 1997.

"Since most of my concerts are in Europe, I tend to spend more time in Europe," he said.

Are there differences between American and European audiences?

"There are lots of differences [even] among Europeans," he said. "But I really can't complain. I manage to establish very good relations with audiences everywhere I play."

Whether he's touring or at home, there's no typical Kissin day.

"Of course, I practice as much as I can. I play every day, work every day, a lot. I prefer practicing in the morning. But there is no average day."

For relaxation, he reads or spends time with friends.

"If I'm away, I write letters or talk on the phone. Sometimes I watch TV or listen to music."

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Kissin's recording life began quite early. He played the two Chopin concertos with the Moscow State Philharmonic in 1984, when he was 12. Released by RCA Red Seal, these performances are, says Duncan Fallowell of London's Sunday Telegraph magazine, "the most brilliant available."

Many CDs have followed.

"I almost never listen to my own recordings," Kissin said. "But sometimes it happens that I do. Of course, I can hear there are differences [between then and now]. Of course, now I am capable of doing more things on the piano than I could 15 years ago, even 10 years ago."

From the beginning, he has been a virtually note-perfect performer, but more distinctively, he also has been an exemplar of a vanishing breed--the 19th century artist who valued freedom of imagination and feeling above everything else. It is that tradition that has inspired recent critical brickbats.

Some writers have said he has only a one-style-fits-all approach. It is a wonderful, outsized style, they say, but not appropriate to all music. Others have lamented Kissin's limited repertory--although that is always a subjective judgment--and his apparent lack of interest in contemporary music.

"I feel a clearer affinity to some composers than to others," Kissin said. "But the piano repertory is so vast, one life is not enough to play all the masterpieces."

Besides, says Kissin defender Jeremy Siepmann of BBC Music magazine, Kissin does not play publicly everything he knows, and quality--not quantity--is the important thing.

The pianist himself feels that he is growing.

"I keep learning and I keep improving," he said. "I believe I can now do more than I used to.

"Everything that surrounds us and we feel influences our music making, even when we don't know how, even when we don't realize it," he added.

The family left Russia to facilitate Kissin's international career, but the young pianist regards his fame with some ambivalence.

"In the former Soviet Union," he said, "the word 'career' had some kind of negative meaning. It meant career-seeking. It meant selfishness, self-seeking love for money. . . .

" 'Career' was the opposite of artistry, of lofty things, of artistry that is serving of art. I was never thinking of that. But I was always performing repertory, and it was very exciting when I was performing more and more important concertos for the first time. It was an evolutionary process."

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EVGENY KISSIN, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Date: Thursday, 8 p.m. Prices: $25 to $45. Phone: (949) 553-2422. Also: Next Sunday, 7 p.m. Royce Hall, UCLA. $9 to $50. (310) 825-2101.

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