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Evgeny Kissin

by Frederic Gaussin

Evgeny Kissin © Sasha Gusov licensed to EMI Classicshe Hôtel Napoléon on the Avenue de Friedland: what an interesting choice for an artist, a Russian one, no less. This spot is full of history. Why did you choose such a place for our meeting? Out of nostalgia for the era of Alexander Kliaguine? To call up imperial gestures?

Evgeny Kissin: Oh no, not at all. I must say that these questions are far from my mind when I come here. I give interviews in this hotel because it's practical for me: my home is only five minutes away by foot. That's all. I do the same in London. That's the only reason for this choice.

Which means that you're now also living in Paris?


So this means that you live and give concerts mainly in the large urban centers of Europe, the Americas, and Asia – all of which are densely populated and built. Do you not miss wide, open spaces from time to time?

Hmm... I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "wide, open spaces!"

I mean, both literally and metaphorically, the vast horizons of your native land, where you lived for twenty years. This feeling of the sheer immensity of this space has inspired and fed the work of visual, musical, and literary artists, as you are well aware. Do you not, as a virtuoso, ever feel the need to...

I love the countryside, I love nature, but I don't live in it, and I spend very little time surrounded by it. I also love cities and historic neighborhoods. I'm interested in architecture, that of Paris just as that of Japanese megalopolises. And I like people. I like to see and meet people. I would be incapable of living or spending long periods in the countryside.

What musical impressions have stayed with you from the Moscow of your childhood? I'm sure you had the opportunity to hear a number of acclaimed musicians.

I did indeed have the opportunity to attend many concerts, and most were of very high level. Oddly enough, though, I never heard Gilels [1916-1985] in person, for example. That's really unfortunate. I was only able to see a televised rebroadcast of some of his last appearances, even though he was still living at the time. I never heard him in the flesh, though I nonetheless remember very clearly his interpretation of Schumann's Symphonic Etudes recorded in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. I'm not referring to the version that was recorded in the Tchaikovsky Hall, which can also be found in stores. The one recorded in the Great Hall is better and more impressive: I remember very clearly hearing it when Andropov [1914-1984, leader of the Soviet Union] died. One of the national television channels chose to play Gilels' version of Symphonic Etudes when they broadcast images from the funeral, while another channel (which was obviously showing the exact same thing) used the same Etudes but with Richter's version. It's true that the atmosphere of this piece corresponded well with the events shown. I was young at the time, but I remember that Gilels' interpretation was infinitely superior to that of Richter. Gilels' was much more profound, especially in the first variation and the middle section of the finale. The general impression he gave was more powerful, more captivating. I own all his recordings of the Sonata in f-sharp minor. That said, I did however hear Sviatoslav Richter [1915-1997] in concert. I especially remember hearing him accompany Peter Schreier in Winterreise. It was marvelous. I also heard Yuri Bashmet on a number of occasions, as well as two chamber orchestras, both excellent yet very different: Vladimir Spivakov's "Virtuosos" and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Saulius Sondeckis, which was more European in their manner and interpretative tradition. I played with the Lithuanian orchestra in 1992, although I was already living in the West at the time.

Did you have the occasion to hear Mravinsky [1903-1988]?

Unfortunately, I never heard him live either. Only on television, but at that time I was too young to really fully appreciate him.

We know how important your teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, was for you as a pianist and in your life, but we don't actually know much about her. Could you give us a few biographical details about her?

Mrs. Kantor was born the 27th of May, 1923, in Saratov. Her mother was a pianist and well-known teacher. She studied at the Moscow Central Music School, initially with Tatyana Kestner.


Who was a student of Goldenweiser?

Precisely [Tatyana Kestner taught Andrei Gavrilov, Elena Kuschnerova, Nikolai Petrov, and Nikolai Lugansky]. But when the war broke out, the Central Music School was evacuated and moved to the southeast of Moscow in the city of Penza, on the Sura. Do you see where I mean?

Only vaguely, honestly. If I remember correctly, Lermontov grew up in the Penza Oblast.

Yes. The Sura is a tributary of the Volga. But Mrs. Kestner did not go to Penza. Mrs. Kantor continued her studies with another excellent teacher by the name of Tamara Bobovitch. When the Germans began their retreat, the zone was evacuated again, and Mrs. Kantor was able to go back to Moscow to join Abram Shatskes' studio at the Conservatory. He was previously the student of Nikolai Medtner.

In the 1920s, Shatskes was famous in Paris as the accompanist for the renowned Marie Olenine d'Alheim, the singer who introduced France to the lieder of Mussorgsky, Cui, Balakirev, etc. Alfred Cortot often played with her, before he devoted himself exclusively to his trio.

Abram Shatskes died rather young in the early 1960s. He was from Vilna. He left behind a recording of Medtner's second concerto under the baton of Evgeny Svetlanov with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. In 1948, Mrs. Kantor earned her degree as his student, playing the Davidsbündlertänze for her final exam. Following that, she devoted herself exclusively to teaching piano to young, gifted students, and this became her life's work. Right from the start, she clearly had a rare, natural gift for this – an extraordinary talent in this very difficult field. My very first "teacher" did not have this natural aptitude, which is both an ability and a gift. Mrs. Kantor thus spent the bulk of her career at the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow. That is, the Elementary School of the Gnessin Academy, where I started at the age of 5 or 6, and not at the Institute of the same name which does not accept students of this age.

What were Anna Pavlovna Kantor's pedagogical methods or method?

That's a question that I'm afraid I can't answer. I was just a child when I worked with her, and thus I never really thought about that, and I've never really tried to remember or delve into that question. I had no way to compare – I was just a student who took lessons, played, studied, but didn't try to understand. It never would have occurred to me to think about the pedagogical method or methods of my teacher. There is one thing that I do know, however, something that Mrs. Kantor taught me much later on. I didn't realize it at the time, I must say, but I realized it much later in conversation: Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn't want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools.

That is lucky indeed: not all teachers respect the personality of their students.

Absolutely. I was very lucky.

... especially as a precocious child. Is it thanks to Mrs. Kantor that your current repertoire is so diverse? How did you progress, what were the steps?

That all depends on what you mean by the "diversity of your repertoire." Before I began my studies at the School, I had been listening to music non-stop, practically from the day I was born. I became familiar very early on with all different kinds of music and pieces, until one day I became physically able to touch the keyboard and play this repertoire, these melodies, by ear.


What, for example?

The first piece I sang was a Bach fugue. I was 11 months old. My older sister was studying the Prelude and Fugue in A-Major from the 2nd book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. That's what I sang. From the very beginning, my taste was vast, very eclectic. In order to answer your question, it depends on what you mean by it. Did you mean, "Was it your teacher who guided you and introduced you to the diversity of the repertoire?"

I was actually referring to a possible "curriculum" that Mrs. Kantor might have followed, as I would be interested in reconstituting your path in terms of the works you studied, by level of difficulty – acquiring, transmitting, and perfecting your instrumental technique in order to communicate in a musical fashion being of course the fundamental goal. This is how Enescu guided the development of the young Menuhin, with whom I hope you don't mind being compared. Even precocious students would not be able to go directly from Op.2 No.1 to Op.111 unsupervised, even if their hands were able, without any risks.

Well let me tell you, one evening, during the birthday dinner that we organized for Mrs. Kantor on her 85th, a friend, who had come to town from afar for the occasion, asked her to describe how she had taught me music during my childhood. Mrs. Kantor said that at root, my own personality, my disposition, my specific qualities, were the only aspects that dictated, over time, how best to teach me. That's what I can say about that. Mrs. Kantor simply followed what she observed, and adapted herself accordingly. We worked on many pieces together, but I've never tried to remember the order in which I learned them, or to consciously evaluate this progression. [Among Anna Pavlovna Kantor's other students, we could name Ludmila Berlinskaia, Nikolai Demidenko, Anton Batagov, and Elisabeta Smirnova].

Let's fast-forward to the present. EMI recently published your recording of Mozart's Concerto in c-minor, for which you composed the cadenzas...

Mozart had left none for this work, and I didn't particularly like any of the existing cadenzas. I thus decided to compose my own.

... like Clara Haskil. What do you think of Saint-Saëns' cadenzas?

I don't really like them!

And regarding your own? How did you use the available thematic material? Did you follow a particular idea, or a specific tonal schema?

I must admit that I simply wrote the cadenzas I wanted to play. The recording of Mozart's c-minor Concerto and the Schumann Concerto that you're referring to was done live at the Barbican Center.

Do you compose?

No. At least not since I was a child.

You play a number of transcriptions for piano, by Liszt, Busoni, Grünfeld... Would you be tempted to compose in this genre?

No... because at the end of the day I'm not sure how to go about it!

With the same orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Colin Davis, you also recorded the complete Beethoven concertos. Would you mind speaking about that?

I thought it would be interesting to see them as a cycle, and I found Sir Colin Davis to be an extremely receptive musical partner. He was immediately on board with my perception of Beethoven's tempi – especially that of the Andante movement of the Concerto No.4, which I play much slower than most pianists today and which calls up a very profound feeling for me. This question of tempo is very delicate. Generally speaking, I don't think we can follow Czerny's metronome indications to the letter – he indicates a very fast Adagio in the Concerto No.5, and a too slow opening Allegro in the 1st, so any serious musician has to admit that these indications don't work. My only regret is that these recordings were not made in concert in London. I'm always a bit dissatisfied, personally, with the work I do in studio. There are some alternative live versions in some of my recordings (one with Esa-Pekka Salonen of Beethoven's Concerto Op.15 recorded at Verbier, for example). I'm glad that they have found an audience.

But for other recordings which represent very important moments in my career, such as the Chopin Concertos (my debut) or the Tchaikovsky Concerto, those I will never re-record commercially. I will most certainly play the Tchaikovsky again, but I will never be able replace Karajan, even though we did disagree at the time on questions of tempo. Oistrakh, Richter, and Rostropovitch themselves have said that they were incapable of standing up to him when they recorded Beethoven's Triple Concerto... But we would have to see what they meant by that exactly.

You rarely play Bach in public.

That's true.


Because it intimidates me. I consider Bach to be the summit of music in general.

In terms of his writing, architecture...

No – those terms "sound" too scientific for my ears. Architecture merely refers to the form.

But can form and content really be disassociated in Bach's work, or even in that of other composers?

When I say "summit," I'm thinking of the musical content, the "summit" in terms of universality, the "summit" from the perspective of spiritual weight. As far as I'm concerned, this is the most important quality in music. And Bach is simply unbeatable in this respect. His music is an integral part of me, but I simply don't dare to play it in public.

But you do play Busoni's transcriptions.

Yes, yes – some... but "rarely," if I were to quote you!

You don't wish to discuss Bach, who is technically within your reach, in terms of the "structures" he perpetually constructs, shall we say. I believe, though, that this reveals a certain contradiction in your repertoire. Generally speaking, you seem to be very devoted to a rigorous presentation and expression of musical ideas, but the great Masters that you play often (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms...) had similar thought processes to that of Bach if we look at the specific forms that they used, shaped, and even transformed – and the metaphysical meaning of their work seems no lesser, to me, than that of the Cantor. No one would thus be led to believe that you rarely play contemporary music for the same reason: the writing is not precise enough, too "juxtaposed," even though it certainly has things to say.

This lack of architecture is not the primary reason for my lack of interest in contemporary music. That music sorely lacks, for my taste, weight – emotional and spiritual density. The works of this age – and I'm speaking of those that I have read through and those that I am familiar with – don't even get close to the level of the great classical works of the past, in any respect. I'm not saying that modern music does not exist as such, or that no works of quality stand out, but simply that contemporary music doesn't move me when it lacks substance.

Chopin, who drew his inspiration not from Tchaikovsky, but from Mozart and Bach, is he still the composer you prefer to play as a soloist?

He is indeed the composer that I play the most, and the one I feel closest to, the one whose music is closest to my heart. From a pianistic point of view, Chopin was a revolutionary, the only one (with the exception of young Scriabin, who drew much from Chopin) who demands such flexibility from the hand at the piano.

His heir Debussy – who is not in your repertoire – does not seem to me any less a "composer," nor any less sensitive or technically innovative than Chopin in his personal idiom.

Indeed... but I would say the same is true for Shostakovich.

And Schoenberg and Prokofiev as well?

Yes, and I would add Olivier Messiaen, whose works I do not yet play. His music is profound, very spiritual. He's a perfect counter-example.

That's cheating: Messiaen surely had something else in addition, which feeds your previous argument: he was a profoundly spiritual man, and thus his music is indeed "dense" in this sense. But here again, one must also master writing and harmony, which also contribute in large part to the overall "density."

[smiles] That's why I see him in a way as the last survivor of an extinct species. I will certainly play Messiaen in the future.

And Albert Roussel?

He's a composer who interests me very much. Vladimir Ashkenazy recently conducted Bacchus and Ariadne in a concert that I was not able to hear in its entirety, as I was playing on the second half, but it is clearly a very interesting, profound piece.

And... again, perfect in its form – which is constantly used to elevate the content, or so it seems to me. What do you think of your compatriot Medtner, who was also a mystic?

Medtner is a particular case. For him, Berlioz was utterly superficial. Medtner was convinced that music had fallen into decadence, and that Berlioz had quickened this fall, and was thus destroying music. Medtner was very conservative: he couldn't stand any of his contemporaries. Not Prokofiev, Debussy, or Richard Strauss.

It's funny to think that he hated being compared to Rachmaninoff, who actually admired him. What is your opinion of his piano pieces?

Those are some very curious scores. Medtner wrote some amazing pieces, very difficult – the Sonatas, the Fairy Tales... The fact that he was so conservative inevitably and clearly affected his music. He suffered mightily from not being considered to be a great composer.

[ironic] You mean... Glazunov's equal?

But Medtner had much more talent than Glazunov, there's the rub. The fact that he didn't make his mark on history like the "Greats" had a huge effect on him. This is regrettable for us today as well. He had so much to say, he had his own style, his own personal language. Medtner was capable of creating truly original pieces.

We were speaking earlier about Vladimir Ashkenazy, who, like Daniel Barenboim, has pursued a conducting career while also continuing his career as a pianist. Have you ever been drawn to orchestral conducting?

I have no desire for it. Playing piano is sufficient in and of itself.

Under Ashkenazy's direction, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, you recorded Prokofiev. Is it easier to play under the baton of a conductor who is also a marvelous pianist?

Oh yes, absolutely. It changes everything. Prokofiev's 2nd and 3rd concertos are the ones I prefer the most of his work. I think that we produced good recordings of them [pause]. When I was a student at the Central Music School in Moscow, I remember that Mrs. Kantor had asked me to imagine an orchestration for Beethoven's Sonatas, and to play them by imitating the different timbres of the orchestra. I still have my score of the Farewell Sonata, which I played when I was 15 and a half. I wrote "oboe, horn, clarinet," etc. in pencil on the score for the different entrances I had identified.

But I never think about Ravel's orchestration when I play Pictures at an Exhibition. Not at all. In that case, it is us, pianists, who are playing the original piece.

Von Bülow makes extensive use of these kinds of notations in his editions of works for piano. Are you interested in the revisions that your precursors have made, if nothing more but out of pure intellectual curiosity?

Actually, their comments "bother" me. I prefer to only have the musical text in front of me, with as few indications as possible, and that it be as close as possible to the definitive version that the composer would have signed off on. Regarding Schnabel, for example, I would prefer to listen to his recordings and learn from those rather than delving into his editions of the Beethoven Sonatas. I don't write in fingerings, or pedaling, or anything of this nature. I don't like to see these kinds of things on scores.

Since we're discussing text, would you mind talking about your passion for poetry (both Yiddish and Russian), which is recited, at least as far as I understand, in a way that is similar to the art of musical interpretation?

I believe that this passion for poetry has been with me since I was a child. We had a tape recorder at home. I still have an image in my mind of the huge, brown loops of tape. When I was a child, my father, who was an engineer, would record me with a giant microphone – at the piano on our old Bechstein, when I improvised or sang, as well as when I recited nursery rhymes or fairy tales, which were my daily bread at the time. I think my taste for reciting poetry was born in those moments. Later, I continued to recite poetry by myself, and I do this at times in public now. I agree entirely with you when you say that playing music and reciting poetry are two very similar activities. In both cases, one has to interpret a work written by someone else, breathe life into it, re-create it for others. The only difference is that my work as a musician is professional.

During some interviews on Russian television, I have been asked to recite poetry, as the journalists had learned of my inclination to do so. The director of the Swiss Verbier Festival, Martin Engstroem, also became aware of my taste for poetry through some of my compatriots. Recently, Martin asked me to try reciting in public for one season, by integrating poetry recitation into the musical offerings of the festival. I accepted under one condition: that the other musicians do the same. Martin agreed. Zubin Mehta, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Itamar Golan agreed to participate in the project. Martin thus organized a series of individual evening performances. Unfortunately, just before the beginning of the festival, Zubin's father fell gravely ill and died, so Mehta declined to continue with the project. And at the last minute, just a few days before her concert, Kiri Te Kanawa cancelled. Only Itamar and I were left. I was the first to get my feet wet. It was very well received, and this led me to repeat the experience in 2006 at Verbier. I've also given a similar concert in France. In October 2002, France-Musique devoted a whole day to me: 24 hours of programming were put together using my recordings, my favorite recordings by other artists, interviews with myself and discussions with various people about me. It ended with a rebroadcast of a concert I had given which was recorded live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées: Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, Brahms' Concerto No.2, and a few encores. Emmanuel Krivine was conducting the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra. I bring this up because René Koering had invited Gérard Depardieu to hear me that evening. During the dinner that followed, Mr. Koering told Depardieu that I enjoyed reciting poetry, and Depardieu then spontaneously suggested that we work together. He said: "You will recite poems of your choice in their original language, and then I will recite the French translation." I was stunned by this proposal. "How could I possibly do such a thing – I'm no professional!" "That doesn't matter," replied Depardieu, "I know that you could do it. I saw you at work just now on stage, at the piano. I even heard the way you introduced your encores and I trust you. Let's do it!" That's how a special concert was programmed for the Festival de Radio-France et de Montpellier, which ended up being cancelled because Gérard Depardieu broke his leg in a motorcycle accident, but it was rescheduled for the following season and was a great success – in front of 800 people in the Pasteur Hall. Depardieu was delighted, and he said that he was ready to repeat the experience at the time and place of my choice.

What is your general relationship to language – whether it be your native tongue or otherwise – a question which has an echo in music? We are currently speaking English, sometimes with structures that come from our respective native tongues, but we are here in Paris where you have chosen to live. Do you have the same relationship with France that your compatriots Pushkin and company, these poets that you admire, had in the past?

No. Previously, great Russian families spoke French more than their native tongue.

... and similarly with the Polish aristocracy, the Habsburg nobility, and the English court – but this specific trait outlasted the 19th century in your country, despite the intelligentsia's admiration for Byron.

Yes, and you know this as well as I do, but personally I had no experience with French growing up. I didn't have a French governess; in fact my family and I have always been fascinated and drawn to London and England. We had friends there and we eventually discovered that we also had family there. When I was growing up during the Soviet era, we were not encouraged to learn foreign languages, and in any case, the main foreign language taught was English during the Cold War. Before World War II, during the 1920s and 30s, German was spoken in some circles, especially musical ones. Mrs. Kantor, for example, studied German in school. In most schools when I was growing up, children were not made aware of the existence of foreign languages. In mine it was different, because it was a specialized school with a specific curriculum. We only had one language class per week though: we only learned the basics of English, and we would have been incapable of expressing ourselves fluently outside the classroom. I had to make up for this lost time on my own since then, during my travels in the West. When I lived in New York, I forced myself not to pick up an American accent...

What do you read for pleasure?

I read novels and plays. I couldn't tell you which genre I prefer. I would say it this way: I've always had a certain affinity for poetry.

The poetic quality: is this something you seek out even in prose?

What type of writing are you thinking of?

To cite our modern writers, The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch, a veritable literary symphony which wends its way around the old rhythms of the most refined German vocabulary, the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, which are so musical when he writes directly in English.

Oh, that's unfortunate – you would enjoy reading Nabokov in Russian as well. Translating works into a foreign tongue is always a problem, even that much more so for poetry. Russian is also a very difficult language to learn, much more difficult to master than French. Truth be told, I don't know if "poetic essence" is a stylistic quality that I seek out consciously in prose, but whatever the case I highly value and enjoy it. I don't enjoy poorly written works.

We don't have much time left. Is chamber music something you'd like to spend more time with?

Yes. I don't play much with ensembles. I've played some very beautiful things in the past, with extraordinary musicians: Isaac Stern, Martha Argerich, Alexander Kniazev, Thomas Quasthoff, Yuri Bashmet... There are some pieces that I would currently like to play, simply because I adore them. First of all, Tchaikovsky's a-minor Trio, which I have never performed but have always admired (I played it recently in Silvia Marcovici and Alexander Kniazev's company, with Joshua Bell and Misha Maisky). I'm also thinking of Mendelssohn's Trio in d-minor, which I played about 15 years ago in Switzerland with Isaac Stern and Natalia Gutman. I went on tour with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, playing the lieder of Tchaikovsky, Medtner, and Rachmaninoff. However, I must admit that I prefer to play solo... simply because that way I play more – I have the opportunity to play the piano more. When I play with an orchestra, or with chamber music ensembles, I sometimes feel frustrated – it's my partners who get to play these magnificent themes. I accompany them, but I'm sad to not be playing this marvelous material myself. Therefore, I prefer to play alone, for this reason but also because when I play solo, everything depends entirely and solely on me. Everything's in my hands, quite literally. Each season, I force myself to play pieces that I have not previously played in public, or played very rarely. Up until recently, for example, I had only played Prokofiev's Sonata No.8 once in public – it was in 1990 and I was quite young. I did my best, and it was recorded for television broadcast, but I'm not completely satisfied with that performance today. I think, musically speaking, that I could do better.


Of the "War" sonatas, is the 8th your favorite?

No, I would say that the 6th is closest to my heart. The title "War sonatas," which is commonly used here, doesn't fit for the 6th, as it was written before Hitler attacked Russia. My favorite Prokofiev sonatas are, in order, the 6th, 4th, and 2nd. I like the 3rd a bit less. As for the 4th, it remains linked to a specific memory of mine. When I was a student, we sometimes played concerts in the great concert hall of the Gnessin Institute, about fifteen minutes by foot from our school. I remember walking over there one winter night for a rehearsal, through the old, dark, gloomy streets of Moscow. I don't remember what I played myself on that concert, but I recall that a slightly older student was playing the 2nd and 3rd movements of Prokofiev's Sonata No.4 – and that 2nd movement is forever tied, in my mind, to that solitary nighttime walk through the old, dark, gloomy streets of Moscow. But this is not a familiar phenomenon for me – visual memories are sometimes associated involuntarily with pieces of music, but for me, I usually react in terms of moods.

And the famous 7th?

... [nodding] You'll have to excuse me, it's already 8pm and I'm expected. Nous en parlerons une prochaine fois. Au revoir, cher Monsieur.

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