LONDON — Classical pianist Evgeny Kissin says he wrote his book, “Memoirs and Reflections” because over the course of many interviews he has constantly been asked the same questions. Ironically, now everyone wants to ask him about the book — creating a catch-22 call and response like a never-ending repeat sign on a piece of sheet music.
Born in 1971, Kissin, who looks blissfully happy after marrying in March of this year, has never known life without music. His book is unlike almost any other Western artistic autobiography in the sense that it sometimes reads like a 19th-century Russian classic. Kissin is also the unusual holder of three nationalities — Russian, British, and, since 2013, Israeli.
He has been described not as a prodigy — which he was — but as “a small genius, who is now simply a genius.” And perhaps that is the key to Kissin, who carries a slightly otherworldly aura around him. Our neighbors in the hotel lobby where we are holding this interview recognize him straight away. “That’s Evgeny Kissin, the great musician,” they whisper admiringly.
To be fair, Kissin resembles almost no one else on the classical stage, with his shock of black hair and the way he earnestly strives to answer questions he might regard as somewhat impertinent.
His mother was a piano teacher in a local music school, while, intriguingly, Kissin senior was an engineer “with a secret job.” In fact, he worked in a rocket factory, an unusual enough occupation for a Soviet Jew at the best of times. What it meant, in effect, was that it was near impossible for him and his family to leave the country.
“I had,” says Kissin, with no air of false modesty, “a natural talent which manifested itself very early.” His older sister Alla was being taught the piano and the baby brother — still only 11 months old — began to hum along to the Bach melody she was playing. At a very precise “two years and two months old,” he was able to play everything he heard around him.
It soon became apparent to the Kissin parents that it was their son, rather than their daughter, who was destined to make music a full-time career. Aged only six, Kissin was sent to the prestigious Gnessin Special School of Music for gifted children, in whose hothouse atmosphere he quickly flourished.
Kissin’s near-complete mastery of the piano as his chosen instrument began gaining him an international reputation. His first concert performance took place when he was 12, and his parents whisked the family off to their dacha, or country house, immediately after his smash-hit appearance — a move Kissin did not understand until years later.
Kissin’s Jewish background is fractured, in that he received almost no Jewish education. But it did not prevent him, according to his memoir, from predicting what he wanted on his tombstone. This is what he wrote when still a young boy: “When I die, bury me in in the region around Moscow, in the forest, and let the stone read, ‘Here lies Evgeny Kissin, son of the Jewish people, a servant of music.’”
‘Let the stone read, here lies Evgeny Kissin, son of the Jewish people, a servant of music’
But the lack of Jewish education did not prevent him from suffering from anti-Semitism, he says.
“In the house in which I lived in the first 13 and a half years of my life, there were only two Jewish families, us and our neighbors the Shapiros,” Kissin says, “and the majority of children in our house were aware that I was a Jew, and frequently reminded me of it. I had to suffer a lot because of this in our yard, not, incidentally, only from children, but also from one of the adults.”
It is not something the virtuoso has spoken about publicly before, but he adds: “Despite all this I have never for a moment had the smallest thought or feeling that being a Jew was bad.”
By the time he was 20 the political convulsions in Russia made it clear to his parents that the time had come to move to the West. After a 1991 tour of the United States, the family — Kissin’s parents, sister, and his beloved piano teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor — moved temporarily to New York.
They were looking to settle permanently in either England or Germany, “but then just when we were deciding, a huge wave of xenophobia began in Germany,” says Kissin.
An extraordinary episode then ensued which culminated in the Kissins making London their base.
“One day my agent arrived in our flat in New York and started bowing to us, and said he would only talk to us that way in future,” Kissin says. “It was especially funny because he was two meters [nearly 6’7”] tall.”
The agent was clutching a letter from Lord Harry Kissin, a buccaneer businessman from Danzig who had won a peerage from British prime minister Harold Wilson in 1974.
Lord Kissin, who was a patron of the Royal Opera House, had written to the agent because he’d heard of the young pianist and wondered if they might be related.
At first, the family laughed, but then Charles — the agent — received a second letter from the peer. In it, he related “that in the 1920s his uncle had lived in the USSR, working as head of the Organization for Corn Exports, but was executed [by Stalin] at the end of the 1930s.”
When Kissin read this letter he realized that he knew about this corn export uncle — Abram Ananyevich Kissin — because his grandfather had spoken about him.
So the peer and the pianist were indeed related, and in August 1992 the Kissins met their new relative for the first time at his second home in the south of France.
‘My mother spoke to him in Russian, Lord Kissin replied in English, and they understood each other’
“My mother spoke to him in Russian, Lord Kissin replied in English, and they understood each other,” says Kissin.
Over the next years the Russian Kissins and the British Kissin grew close, so much so that Lord Kissin interceded with the UK authorities to help Evgeny and his family gain British residency in 1994 — visas which included Evgeny’s teacher, Anna Kantor.
Lord Kissin died in 1997 but the family had five years of warm and close friendship with him, and after his death a fellow peer — and fellow musician — Yehudi Menuhin, helped the Kissins apply for the right of permanent residence. They finally received British citizenship in 2002.
Getting a British passport “greatly simplified my nomadic life,” writes Kissin. But there was something missing “for my soul.”
Though he was and remains grateful to Britain for his citizenship, he laughs at the notion of himself as any sort of an Englishman.
“And so, following the calling of my soul, I turned to the Israeli government with a request for Israeli citizenship,” he says.
In his request, Kissin noted that he wanted “all people who value my art to know that I am a Jew, that I belong to the people of Israel. For that reason I feel a natural desire to travel around the world with an Israeli passport.”
His request was granted in 2013, and Kissin now says that he really feels himself “a soldier of Israel on an international front.” He is a fierce opponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and frequently issues angry polemics against anti-Zionists on his website.
Kissin’s other great passion besides music might surprise some. The pianist writes and recites Yiddish poetry, an avocation that arose from an embrace of the Yiddish language, which he taught himself from scratch.
He’s always loved poetry — there are recordings of him reciting it as a child in Russia — and about 15 years ago he was invited to give a poetry performance at the annual Verbier Festival in Switzerland. Musicians love Verbier, Kissin says, because the accommodation is not in hotels but in small apartments and chalets, giving people the opportunity to bring their families and “to play lots of chamber music together.”
The director of the festival, Martin Engstroem, asked Kissin if he would recite some poetry one evening. He agreed, as long as others would take part.
“So [opera singer] Kiri Te Kanawa, [Israel Philharmonic conductor] Zubin Mehta, and [fellow pianist] Itamar Golan all agreed,” says Kissin. “But then Zubin’s father died, so he left the festival altogether, and Kiri got scared. So it was just [Itamar] and me.”
It was a great success: Kissin gave the 100-strong audience a number of Russian and Yiddish poems, with translations in French and English. Some years later he did the same thing with the actor Gerard Depardieu at the Montpellier Festival in France.
At the time Kissin was only giving readings of poems by other writers. But he became close friends with Boris Sandler, the legendary Yiddish editor of the Forverts, the New York-based Yiddish language newspaper. Sandler, a former musician, mentored Kissin when he began to write in Yiddish, going so far as to create a special blog for him on the Forverts website. “Boris edits my prose writing much more than my poems,” Kissin admits. “Some of my poems he leaves intact.”
Kissin has played all over the world, and has a full schedule for at least the next five years. But he retains a special amused affection for the Israel Philharmonic, with whose members he has played many times. The orchestra members make him laugh because of their tendency to argue with conductor Zubin Mehta.
Kissin recalls a rehearsal in which the first cellist told Mehta, “We were with you… you slowed down, so we slowed down.” An amused Kissin says that back in the day a Soviet cellist who would have had the temerity to argue with the conductor would have been thrown out, no question.
But he adds that he appreciates the arguing. “It is very Jewish and it makes me happy — because of the realization that dictatorships cannot work for us.”