Rhinegold

Stephen Wigler

Evgeny Kissin: Memoirs and Reflections

8:00, 20th November 2017

Weidenfeld & Nicolson
208 pages, $29.95
*****
EDITOR’S CHOICE

Evgeny Kissin’s Memoirs and Reflections is not exactly an autobiography, but, more precisely, an account of his education and how the people he encountered nurtured him in the journey from a child prodigy to a mature artist who is arguably one of our greatest pianists.

In his preface, Kissin tells us that ‘[this] book is not only and, indeed, not so much about me, as about many other people whom fate has allowed me to encounter and [who have] made my life better and richer.’

There are well-drawn portraits of the conductors he has worked with, including Evgeny Svetlanov, Herbert von Karajan and Carlo Maria Giulini. About Giulini, for example, he writes: ‘Generally speaking, the mastery of Giulini is exactly what is dearest of all to me in art: simplicity, depth and spirituality.’

There are also evaluations of other pianists. One of his favourites of the past (and, perhaps, the one he feels closest to) is Dinu Lipatti, who played with the qualities Kissin celebrates in Giulini. The two living pianists he most admires are Martha Argerich and Grigory Sokolov and his affection for them reflects what Kissin values in interpretation: Argerich is perhaps the most passionate of our pianists; Sokolov, the most intellectual.

Kissin is a born storyteller. It’s not entirely a surprise that he thinks of certain pieces in terms of narratives or constructs storylines for them.

‘When I play Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, I think about the Book of Esther … As soon as I began to learn Prokofiev’ Sixth Sonata (I was not yet 14), I immediately imagined that the main theme of the first movement was the image of Stalin … In the finale of Schubert’s D Major Sonata, I see the image of an old, kind Viennese Jewish watchmaker, much loved by children, to whom he sings …’

Kissin’s readers will also learn that there are some great works that he loves but will never perform in public. ‘Because I know, for example, that I will never play Ravel’s Scarbo like Samson François in his first recording of the work … or the ‘Goldberg Variations like Gould or Barenboim,’ he says. ‘So what right do I have to take up the valuable time of my listeners?’

Readers will not learn, however, any details of Kissin’s personal life as an adult. While he mentions his recent marriage to the daughter of the well-known Moscow pianist and teacher, Evgeny Lieberman, he never mentions her name – it is Karina Arzuminova – or says that they were childhood friends. Yet he is not afraid to confess to embarrassments that other, less forthright, men might have neglected to mention.

He admits that the success of his sold-out concerts in Japan, Europe and – upon his first tour of North America – New York did not prepare him for an occasion in which he might be playing for a house that was less than completely filled. ‘But when I first played in Montreal, where at that time I was unknown, they told me that not all the tickets had been sold and I, very disappointed, started to complain that I should not be inspired, and a man, who was looking after me, uttered a phrase that I have remembered all my life: “You should not punish those who came for those who did not ”.’

There are strains in every life and, though he does not dwell on them, Kissin does not hesitate to mention challenges he has faced. He tells us, for example, that in his teens, ‘I suffered from a nervous tick’; and in a performance of Chopin’s great F sharp minor Polonaise he became so overwhelmed by its tragic intensity that he ‘began to twitch so much from my feelings that [my teacher] said it was probably not worth my playing it because it had a bad effect on my nerves.’

Kissin loved the piece too much to refrain – his recording of it as a 15-year-old is one of the finest ever recorded  – and by the time he reached mature adulthood and performed and recorded it again that problem seems have been resolved.

Although Kissin does not tell us how this was accomplished, he makes a fascinating allusion to psychotherapy, when he compares the ethereal radiance and transfigurative power of the Arietta’s closing measures in Beethoven’s Op 111 to the experience of an illuminating session with a psychotherapist.

What readers will not find is any gossip about any musician, living or dead, with whom Kissin has worked. In this book, as in his interviews, he refrains from saying anything about anyone unless it is something good. Two of his chapter headings are telling. In his discussion of his childhood and youth early in the book, the first of these reads: ‘I Have Been Lucky to Meet Good People in My Life’. Towards the book’s conclusion, the second of them reads: ‘There Are Always Good People Everywhere’.

Kissin probably does not know, and certainly does not reveal, what is at the heart of his greatness as a pianist, but his charming memoir expresses what is in his heart, demonstrating that he himself is one of those good people.

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