On Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin may soon become my absolute favorite pianist. I think there’s only one thing to be said of his fame, and that is, that it is well earned. There are so many forgotten legends of course, and we must always remember them, but sometimes the most mainstream of artists, in a given discipline, is perhaps actually the best. The reason why I say this is to address those of the opinion that the first thing they hear is almost certainly not going to be the best thing they hear, that the reputation of an artist really says nothing of whom it follows, merely the tastes of the lowest common denominator. Well, while this is true 99% of the time, there is always that 1% who earns their status, who lives up to the hype. In this rare case, no matter how far and wide you search for better, what you find is not their replacement, but a new appreciation for why the ‘one with all the fame’ is so famous.

Now, of course, as another world-class pianist, Artur Rubinstein, has said, there is no such thing as the ‘greatest pianist’, it’s all a matter of taste- to this, I agree, in a way. Music does not exist in a vacuum, people must listen to it. Nevertheless, it is certainly helpful to know your own tastes well enough to be persuasive. Not only this but you must also be willing to be persuaded by artists who may move you in ways you do not expect. To criticise is easy, but to really appreciate the musician, you must truly listen, in the deepest sense, to his music. Sometimes it is not a problem with the artist, but a problem with our own ears, which causes us to criticise.

One must grow with the artist, as we do not come pre-packaged with musical taste. It is not entirely innate, and we are not without fault for being tasteless. This is why persuasion is not only possible but also imperative. Before we get to Kissin, let’s name drop a few other pianists who many believe to be in the pantheon of virtuosity. I want to start with Sviatoslav Richter. What made him so magnetic was the sheer energy of his performances- he played the grand piano like Hendrix played the electric guitar. Not only had he soul, he had the most amount of soul I have ever witnessed. Everything he played was entirely unique, and entirely his own. It just felt good to listen to him. What we are often told by music critics is that the modern pianists do not have that same vigor, that same rawness, instead, they are all concerned with technique and how many wrong notes they play. Well, this is interesting because these same types are also of the opinion that modern pianists are too emotional and sentimental, that they have lost their spine. Well, to that all I have to say is, can we perhaps imagine how these critics would treat the legends of the past, were they to be reincarnated today? What would they say of Michelangeli, Backhaus, Gilels, Lhevinne or Gieseking? Those technical perfectionists? Or Cortot, Gould or indeed Richter? Those hopeless romantics whose imposition of their own expressionism was the priority and to whom only second came the composition? I have a feeling that they would be seen as too unorthodox. You know there are composers, and then there are ‘imposers’. Do you not remember the Miser’s touch of Glenn Gould? I mean everything he touched turned to Gould! Okay, I apologize for that, and it is not that I dislike such imposers either. In fact, these pianists, of either flavor, are all among the absolute greats of all time. Each of these artists is a universe unto themselves. But there are modern equivalents, and this is what is ignored by some critics.

The issue which most critics of modern classical music have, however, is really that today there are not only technicians and expressionists, there are also technicians with a soul, and expressionists who know how to play. The modern virtuoso must fuse art and craft, and this is a problem for certain dusty old men who can only see things in black and white. I once read an article where someone was reminiscing about Artur Schnabel and saying how much he thought Evgeny Kissin in comparison is just dull and uninteresting. My goodness, how I disagree! Actually, I find Schnabel to be far less pleasurable to listen to, and this is mainly because there was truly no flare in his interpretations, no vigor. In fact, I think the criticism should really be the opposite way around. Now, I only defend certain of the modern generation of course. Have you ever listened to Seong-Jin Cho? There’s a young talent with a perfect touch and real understanding of musical beauty, and he gives even the grumpiest critic hope for the future. On the other hand, however, there are those such as Lang Lang, whose reputation stems from that section of the piano-loving population with no taste at all. It’s okay to be an imposer, as long as you’re good at it. Lang Lang can express himself, and he can play, but he often ends up just butchering the composition. He is too erratic and impulsive. His energy is there but it does not manifest itself in grandiose ways that elevate the music, it merely makes a mess.

Kissin is actually the master of merging his stellar virtuosity with a truly deep and profound understanding of composition and composer. He lets the piece speak for itself like Claudio Arrau used to do, and in doing so he will charge the music with tremendous density. His secret lies in his ability to listen, to pay attention, and this is what causes us to pay attention to him. This is why he is not only a master of the fast stuff but also of the slow stuff. He is not erratic and impulsive, nor is he rigid. He is measured but not without flare. Lastly, he is prolific. Unlike Zimmerman, whose renderings are truly mythical, but also rarer than a mythical beast, Kissin, being his equal in my mind when it comes to most compositions, is also more than willing to actually sit down in front of an audience, to play- with ease and grace- from his most daunting of repertoires.

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