Do Androids Dream of Electric Pianos?
Evgeny Kissin’s 'Fantasy'
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The first time I heard the pianist Evgeny Kissin was in Carnegie Hall, in 1998, with the Met Orchestra and James Levine. Kissin is pale and grave and a little like Mr Bean, with a high, fraught forehead and a frizz of brown hair. He kept his arms stiff at his sides as he walked on stage, gave a jerky, unsmiling bow, and sat down at the piano. It might have been comic, but nobody laughed.
The Brahms D minor is one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire. There is struggle written into its texture, as the pianist flings himself against its giant edifices of sound. In this performance, Kissin's command was absolute, which perhaps diluted the concerto's gladiatorial drama, though it provided a different thrill. He produced a real Brahms sound, big and burnished and impassioned, which seemed to come from all four walls at once. There is something participatory about witnessing achievement on this level, and there was a charge in the audience that afternoon which was mostly astonishment, but also pride for our kind. When the concerto finished, Kissin was called repeatedly back to the stage, until he permitted himself a half smile and sat down for an encore.
It is a powerful thing to silence a hall of people with your fingers, and Kissin had a megalomaniacal gleam in his eye as he performed one Brahms encore after another, each more improbable than the last. In his final Hungarian Dance it seemed that the game was up: he had gone too far, revealing supernatural powers. It reminded me of what Leon Plantinga calls the phenomenon of the "sorcerer-virtuoso" in the nineteenth century; for the first time, I could imagine what it might have been to hear Liszt in recital and swoon. I left the concert gladder to be alive, and with an expanded (if mistaken) sense of human possibility. Mistaken because Kissin's attainments lie well beyond the human. If an android were to infiltrate humanity, disguised as a concert pianist, then it might look and sound something like Evgeny Kissin.
Born in Russia in 1971, Kissin was a child prodigy of the classic kind. "I started playing the piano at age two," he has said, "or to be precise when I was two years and two months old." At the age of six, he began studies with Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who remains his mentor. When Herbert von Karajan first heard the teenage Kissin play, he wept and declared the boy a genius. Now in his thirties, Kissin accepts his genius without self-congratulation, as one might accept the fact of being a brunette.
As music remains a mystery, so too does musical genius. Christopher Nupen, in his hagiographic documentary of 1997, attempts to probe that mystery, but his interviews are stilted and he asks no substantial questions; Kissin blinks back at him, with an Asperger's-like lack of affect. Andrew Solomon is more penetrating in ‘Questions of Genius', his 1996 article for the New Yorker, and suggests that for Kissin music is a "super-verbal" language. Indeed, Kissin admits to Solomon that he does not "even know how to convey through speech at all. What I have to say, the music says it".
And the music has always said a lot. Deutsche Grammophon's new double CD, Fantasy, is a re-release of recordings made when Kissin was a teenager. The first CD presents a coherent program: Liszt's Schubert Lieder transcriptions, Liszt's Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody, Schubert's ‘Wanderer' Fantasy and Brahms' Fantasies Op. 116. Its companion CD, however, is an odd beast, comprising the Tchaikovksy concerto and Beethoven Choral Fantasy with the Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Kempff's solo-piano transcription of Bach's Siciliana for flute, and a transcription of Gluck by Sgambati. It makes no sense as a program; Deutsche Grammophon has clearly raided its archives to compete for sales with Kissin's more recent recordings for RCA's Red Label. But taken together, the two CDs present a compelling portrait of the artist in his teenage years.
Even then, Kissin could do anything at the piano. In moments of technical extremis there is an amped-up glee in his sound - the concluding left-hand octaves in the Liszt Rhapsody, for instance, or the double octaves in the Tchaikovsky - that has to do with the physical rapture of playing the instrument. And such rapture should not be sniffed at. It is easy to dismiss such achievements as mechanical, but there is nothing empty about Kissin's art. There is something else at its centre: a largeness, a space. While a pianist such as Lang Lang can sometimes seem corrupted by his gifts, becoming decorative or mannered, Kissin remains idealistic. He brings a purity and an architectural clarity to works as diverse as the Liszt Rhapsody and Schubert's ‘Wanderer' Fantasy. It is almost as though he is explaining them to us, rendering them transparent.
His absolute command of the instrument extends to sonority and texture, so that the Liszt-Schubert song transcriptions are perfectly delineated and a new world is invented in each. In Schubert there is a craving after annihilation with which Kissin identifies - music perhaps offers him something similar - so that the climax of Gretchen's spinning, as she yearns to die kissing Faust, is performed with real desperation. Similarly, the Erlkönig's paedophiliac promises are particularly seductive (and the song's tragic ending inevitable). Kissin's sound world in his Brahms Fantasies reminded me of Liszt's wistful words about the virtuoso Henselt: "I too could have had such velvet paws." Kissin has velvet paws, along with almost everything else.
Perhaps the only thing missing from these performances is a sense of a fallible human being existing behind them. Sometimes in the Schubert songs I wished for more vulnerability; the ‘Wanderer' Fantasy unfolds with such Beethovenian inevitability that it cancels Schubert's digressiveness or, to use Neville Cardus's term, his "vagrancy". The performance of Kempff's transcription of Bach's Fantasie for flute is abstractly beautiful, but I prefer Kempff's own recording, which is both more purposeful and more expressive, and in which you can almost hear warm breath coursing through a flute.
But it is perhaps unfair to applaud someone for their perfection and then fault them for it. It is equally unfair to judge an artist solely on his performances as a teenager, 17 years ago. There are always those who cheer for the burnout of a prodigy, but reports of Kissin's demise have been greatly exaggerated. His playing has deepened in the years since these recordings. There is a clear development between the Gluck Melodie on Fantasy, for example, and Kissin's performance of the same piece on the Nupen documentary, seven years later. Now in his thirties, Kissin continues to tour, with his mother and his teacher as companions, an arrangement that is frequently labelled dysfunctional. Of course it is: no one is celebrating Kissin for his normality.
His playing has also become wilder. The last time I heard him live was in the Royal Albert Hall at the opening night of the Proms, in 2000. After an epic performance of Rachmaninov's second concerto, he returned to the stage for his encores. The second of these, the Rachmaninov G minor prelude, was in effect a strange kind of leave-taking. The prelude is marked Alla Marcia, but Kissin took it at a tempo to which no human being could have sprinted, let alone marched. This was the only time I have sensed a real danger in Kissin's playing. It was thrilling, but almost beyond the speed of hearing - and of comprehension. It was as though he was tired of slowing down for mortal ears and was testing his own limits, investigating whether he was something other than human.
In the Nupen documentary, Kissin quotes by memory from a 1989 essay by the Russian musicologist Gennady Tsypin:
In general one gets an impression that up to now everything has been easy for Kissin in piano playing. Sometimes even too easy. Both pluses and minuses of his art come from that fact. Now we only hear in his playing what comes from his great natural gift. This is of course wonderful, but in future something definitely has to change. What? When? In which way? Everything will depend on that.
Kissin concludes his recitation and stares deadpan at the camera. "As you see," he says, "I remember those words."