Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin on his art and work

In a rare interview, the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin tells Vadim Prokhorov about his art and work - and the night when, aged 12, a single performance propelled him into music history

Two hours into our conversation, Evgeny Kissin, sitting in his apartment on New York's Upper West Side, becomes somewhat restless and asks how many questions I still have for him. "Not many, really," I reply. "The reason for my asking," he continues, "is that our building has a new regulation: we are prohibited to practice after 9pm, and it's already seven o'clock."

This new regulation, however impeding, is still a far cry from the experience he and his family had in their Moscow apartment. Their downstairs neighbour, an artillery captain, called the district music school where Kissin's mother worked as a piano teacher and complained about the noise the 14-year-old Evgeny was making. He also implied that Mrs Kissin was giving private lessons at her home, which was a crime in the Soviet Union. Later on, in conversation with Mrs Kissin, the captain inquired whether her son attended school - the question was an implied Molotov cocktail, since it was a crime for a child to not attend school. Mrs Kissin said that her son was given free-attendance status so that he could practice more at home. The captain retorted: "I'm an artillery officer, but I don't fire cannons at home."

A group of neighbours appealed to the court, asserting that the Kissins had a concert grand in the middle of a room - "We actually had an upright piano at that time," comments Evgeny Kissin - and that at the piano "a boy is sitting, pushing hard on the pedals". Eventually a policeman came to investigate. On that particular day, Kissin had a rehearsal at the Kremlin for a gala concert dedicated to the completion of the 27th Congress of the Communist Party. "My father explained to the policeman the reason for my absence," says Kissin. "The policeman gave a salute and said, 'So be it. His practicing will never be a problem from this point on.'"

The artillery captain did not actually experience many problems with "noise" when Kissin was a child. In his first year at the Gnesin Special Music School, which he entered at the age of six, Kissin practised no more than 20 minutes a day. In his second year of school, he practised close to an hour; and after three years, four hours a day. "I think that I didn't need too much discipline in the beginning," Kissin says. "As a musician, I was developing very fast, and when one has a real gift, one can make strides by using only natural talent, without applying too much effort. Later there comes a moment when one can't grow without working hard."

Kissin, who has just turned 32, was extremely quiet as a child. He stood in his crib and listened to his elder sister playing the piano. One day he sang a theme from a Bach fugue his sister was practising. He was one year old. From then on, he sang everything he heard: his sister's repertoire, melodies he heard on the radio, TV and records. At the age of two, he began to play the piano.

Nobody taught him before he attended school, and it was only there that he learned how to read music. "My parents did not expect me to have a gift for music," says Kissin. "They did not think that I would become a musician, so they allowed me to do whatever I wanted. They thought that my sister would be a pianist."

At the Gnesin School, he entered the class of Anna Pavlovna Kantor - the only piano teacher he has ever had. "For as long as I can remember," says Kissin, "I was more interested in music than spending time outside with other children. It was an urge that neither I nor anyone else could stop. Perhaps some would think that my childhood wasn't really normal. But for me it was as natural and normal as breathing."

His first performance was at the age of seven, when he played his own compositions. He was 10 when he played his first concert with an orchestra; at 12 he played Chopin's concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Dmitry Kitaenko at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. This famous concert was one of the most important and memorable points in the pianist's career. He was virtually unknown until that evening; he woke up the next morning as a legend.

Kissin seems reluctant to consider that concert as a transition to stardom: "I understand that it was an important event in my life. But fame, stardom? I have never been interested in them. I've never liked publicity. I've eventually learned how to behave properly when approached by musical fans, but I have to admit that just 10 years ago I was absurdly anti-social in this respect."

His parents and Kantor cultivated this approach to success. The day after the Moscow concert the whole family took a short vacation in Zvenigorod (about 30 miles west of Moscow). Many years later Kissin came to know that they did that on purpose, so that he didn't notice all the agitation created by his performance.

The agitation was indeed quite enormous. Everyone who attended the concert - including this reporter - had the impression that Chopin's spirit was talking through Kissin that evening. Kissin, however, does not remember well his state of mind and soul during the concert. Nor does he remember how he played. "I remember some details, which were not connected to the music," he says. "At the end of the first part, for example, a dacha neighbour of ours came up to the stage with flowers, and after the concert someone gave me a big toy car. Anna Pavlovna told me later that when a stage manager opened a stage entrance door, I - seeing the hall - recoiled, and Kitaenko slightly pushed me forward. But I don't have a recollection of that."

At first, Kissin was allowed to travel only to eastern Europe. On his first trip, he played in a gala concert in east Berlin. After the concert, Erich Honecker, East Germany's Communist leader, said that if hadn't been for Kissin, the gala would have been a total waste of time.

In 1988, he met Herbert von Karajan and with him played the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Kissin's introduction to the conductor was quite unexpected. His impresario, Hans-Dieter Gohre, invited Kissin and his family to stay in Munich before the beginning of his tour in Austria and Switzerland with the Moscow Virtuosi. One morning, Gohre called him and asked whether he would like to meet and play for Karajan. "I was kind of taken aback," says Kissin. "'Do you mean the conductor?' I asked. 'Yes, the conductor,' he said. He had sent Karajan my recordings and asked if he would like to meet me. Karajan agreed."

Kissin remembers every minute detail of the meeting and the extraordinary effect Karajan made on him: "Anna Pavlovna told me that I had never played Chopin's Fantasy as well as I did for Karajan." The effect was obviously mutual. "When I finished playing," remembers Kissin, "I looked at Karajan, got up, made a few steps toward him and saw him giving me an air kiss, then taking his sunglasses off and wiping his tears with a handkerchief." Karajan's wife said to Kissin after the meeting: "I have been married to him for 30 years and have never seen him so moved." While saying goodbye to Kissin's mother, Karajan pointed at the 16-year-old pianist and said: "Genius."

After graduating from the Gnesin School, Kissin was supposed to go to the Moscow Conservatory, but the administration of the Gnesin Music Institute suggested that Anna Pavlovna teach Kissin there. They both accepted, and Kissin spent the next two years at the institute.

It has always been a tradition in Russia for music students to go to a different teacher when entering such institutions as the Moscow Conservatory. The great Zverev, who taught Scriabin and Rachmaninov, knew that he had to hand them over to great piano masters who taught in the upper division of the conservatory. He transferred Scriabin to Safonov, and Rachmaninov to Ziloti. This transfer has never taken place with Kissin. "Anna Pavlovna and I matched extremely well, both musically and personally. She has become not only my musical mentor but also a friend of mine and of my family. Never having had a family of her own, she has become a part of our family."

They all moved to New York just after the 1991 revolution in Russia. It was an extremely turbulent, volatile and uncertain time in Russia; the country was disintegrating and what was coming in its place was unclear. "So we decided to wait it out," explains Kissin, "to see how all the turmoil would end. And since my tour at that time included the US, we decided to stay there. We also thought about the UK. Now we live in both New York and London."

After spending 20 years in a bright spotlight, Kissin appears to face the question every young virtuoso sooner or later must consider: how to make the transition into a mature thinker. In 1989, the Russian musicologist, Gennady Tsypin, published an essay about Kissin, in which he concluded: "There is an impression that so far playing the piano has been quite easy for him. Perhaps even too easy. All the pluses and minuses of his musicianship come from that. For now, what one notices first and foremost when listening to his performance are those aspects that come from his unique natural gift. It is admirable, but to a certain point. Something should certainly change in the future. What? How? When?"

"Of course, I play differently now than, let's say, 10 years ago," says Kissin. "It is not a cardinal difference of ideas or perception, however; it is that in my early years some things would go unnoticed, as if I had a different set of ears. Now, however, I notice more and see many things in a different light. My definition of musical maturity is that our goal as musicians is to come as close as possible in our performance of great works to the level of those works. We have to render all the depth of a composer's thought. I agree with Goethe who said, 'A real poet has an innate knowledge of life, and for its portrayal he needs neither experience nor empiric means.'"

One aspect of Kissin's playing will not change any time soon - his romantic approach to life and creativity. "I'm romantic as a person, and my romantic nature is reflected in my choice of music and my performing style," he says. "However, I learned from my experience that love for a particular work, composer or style and the ability to interpret it on a high level are two different things that often do not match. I have a complicated relationship with Beethoven's music, for example, although I have always believed that I have a special affinity to it. But in this case, my love for his music has never translated into my ability to perform it adequately."

Kissin plays around 40 concerts a year, which is one possible explanation for the fact that he never seems to tire of playing the piano. Despite being interested in many things he has no specific hobbies. "My art is my life," he stresses. "One is inseparably related to the other. To realise the potential given me by nature is, perhaps, most important for me, and my potential is in music."

When he was once asked about his greatest triumph, he replied that he had not experienced it yet. It appears to be still ahead of him.

Vadim Prokhorov

The GuardianTramp

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