JEvgeny Kissin remains a mystery. He has always been shy and unapproachable in his gentle friendliness. And even now, as the pianistic child prodigy of the eighties approaches his fiftieth birthday in October, the child’s mysterious seclusion in his own world lies over his gestures and looks. When he gets up from the grand piano after playing in the Salzburg Festival Hall, steps in front of the audience, spreads his feet apart and suddenly changes his face from a state of daze to a smile, then you think you see a person who is between what knows how to distinguish between him and what IS according to good manners, and does what is asked of him.
Only when playing does he seem to be completely with himself. But is he happy there? Distortions and twitches in the face betray tension; a percussive breath at fast, fast passages tells of a body crying out for air in a battle for marksmanship, which is won with still exhilarating brilliance – particularly in Frédéric Chopin’s A flat major Polonaise Op. 53. But whether the hero still enjoys his victories – one cannot really say.
Yevgeny Kissin lost a certain person three weeks ago: Anna Pavlovna Kantor, his piano teacher, who was also a member of his family for thirty years. We know from the pianist Ivo Pogorelić that the death of his teacher – and wife – Aliza Kezeradze was so mentally upset that he was still unable to reorient his compass to this day.
Party soldier and protector
In Salzburg, Kissin disturbed the audience with a strange program choice: he placed early piano pieces by Tikhon Chrennikov between Alban Berg’s piano sonata – played with a very clear overview and a decided hierarchy of main and secondary parts – and George Gershwin’s three Preludes for piano. From 1948 to 1992, Khrennikov was chairman of the Union of Composers in the Soviet Union, a loyal party soldier with a contradictory biography. In official speeches he denounced Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and at the same time got the brilliant entertainment composer Isaac Dunaevsky out of prison. In the late 1970s he took action against Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Denissow, knowing full well that he was ennobling them as dissidents and making them attractive for the Western market – he maintained personal connections with the Sikorski publishing house in Hamburg.
One cannot accuse Kissin of promoting a cultural re-Stalinization. Both his selection and his interpretation show that the music of the young Hrennikov does not differ too much from the motorized brutalism of Prokofiev. The music of the still active and valued Rodion Shchedrin, like Khrennikov a student of Vissarion Shebalin, is very close to this idiom of demonstrative display of strength.
But after Khrennikov’s music was part of the prescribed canon in all the republics of the Soviet Union for forty years, it would be nice and fair now to pay tribute to music that was suppressed in the Soviet Union: that of Georgi Catoire, Felix Blumenfeld and his student Zara Levina on the Example or by Nikolai Roslavets.
Kissin then plays Chopin, music he has had in his fingers for almost forty years, in search of details that might surprise even him. In their demonstrative stretching, especially in the B major Nocturne op. 62 no. 1, but the element of surprise is lost, as is the elegance of the casual of some boldness. But in the horrible confusion of the B minor Scherzo op. 20, which with its radical nihilism – built around a Polish Christmas carol – anticipates the spiritual panic of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky by decades, the evening reaches its climax. Kissin blossoms to its fullest.