Born on October 9, 1971, in Moscow, U.S.S.R.; given name is sometimes tranliterated as Yevgeny; son of Emilia Kissin (a piano teacher). Education: Attended Gnessen School for musically gifted children, Moscow. Addresses: Agent--IMG Artists, Carnegie Hall Tower, 152 W. 57th St., 5th Fl., New York, NY 10019.

Evgeny Kissin has been a musical prodigy since the age of two, when he began to play the piano. His mother, a piano teacher, never taught him, but instead sent him to Moscow's Gnessen School for musically gifted children, where he was enrolled through 1991. Kissin has had only one piano teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, and has never entered the competitive recital circuit. Kissin's advanced interpretations and specialized skills have grown with intensive tutelage, yet his personality and individualism have remained intact. Kissin explained his personal philosophy of music to Time: "True art gives birth to good as opposed to evil," he explained. "Right now we are going through a very turbulent time. The goal of musicians is to make our art, which is humane, kind and international, prevail over all the other things that are evil."

By the age of ten, Kissin was already becoming an international legend, without the benefit of an American debut. Harold C. Schonberg, a music critic for the New York Times, was invited by conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov to hear Kissin play. Schonberg recalled that "the boy had everything---fingers, tone, and an uncanny ability to know exactly when to modify a tempo, how to accent an inner voice, how to highlight a phrase in the subtlest and most musical of ways. All this at 12." A legendary 1984 concert in Moscow, featuring Kissin's performances of Polish-French composer Frederic Chopin's two piano concertos, put the young prodigy on international map. In 1988 Herbert von Karajan, a conductor and talent scout, summoned Kissin to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic. This attention earned Kissin offers from recording companies. Schonberg described Kissin as a "Romantic pianist in the old Russian tradition."

Some critics have suggested that Kissin's style is unspoiled because he avoids traditional performance competitions. Peter G. Davis, a music critic for New York, remarked that Kissin was outstanding because he "never had to [compete]." Generally, the competition routine for top-level pianists demands a hard, even, and uniform technique from aspiring stars. Kissin's style stood out from those of his regulated peers. His emotional style of playing, according to Schoenberg, "looks back to a period when a controlled sonority, a singing line, power without banging, tempo modification and poetry were what the great Slavic Romantic pianists represented."

Kissin made his long-awaited United States debut on September 20, 1990, at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic. He received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd. A few days later he played a recital at Carnegie Hall. Donal Henahan of the New York Times attended and reported that "It is not often that a young pianist with the technical tools of a Mr. Kissin resists the urge to whip up visceral excitement purely by playing fast and loud. ... At times he took an embroidered run so softly that the piano seemed to be murmuring Chopin's thoughts to itself, reminding a listener that, according to contemporary reports, that is exactly how the composer himself played his music." Remarks about the controlled power of Kissin's playing dominated reviews of these concerts. New York's Peter G. Davis marveled that Kissin could "project the combative force of Prokofiev's warlike Sonata No. 6 quite this powerfully and yet temper the onslaught with so much expressive urgency."

Critic Michael Walsh wrote in Time, of Kissin's performance of Schumann's Symphonic Etudes at the Carnegie Hall recital, that the Russian played "the series of challenging variations as if he were inventing the piece as he went along." Attesting to the maturity of Kissin's interpretations in an Entertainment Weekly review of the album Evgeny Kissin in Tokyo that included works by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Liszt, Chopin, and Scriabin, Walsh concluded that "the point is simply that ... Kissin plays with the passion of a young man and the taste of an old one."

The intense Kissin relaxed by reading the works of Russian authors Pushkin and Tolstoy; in his rare lighter moods he sometimes played the piano rags of Scott Joplin. Often described as quiet and nervous, Kissin projected a modest demeanor. He himself rejected the "genius" label sometimes pinned on him and downplayed his musical abilities, pointing to his reluctance to approach the profound works of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. In an interview with Abigail Kuflik of Newsweek, Kissin remarked that "maybe it was easier for me as a young person to play romantic music, to play music with the heart. Beethoven, it's nicer to play also with the mind. Maybe that's why I had to become old."

Kissin was far from old at that point, but he quickly added sonatas and concertos by Beethoven to his repertoire and gained reviews as glowing as those he had received previously. One feature that music writers noted over the 1990s, though, was that Kissin's repertoire was less broad than those of his peers; while many pianists cultivated a well-rounded mix of works running from the Classical age of Mozart and Haydn, when the piano was new, to contemporary works, Kissin stuck to tried-and-true warhorses of the 1800s and early 1900s. Kissin made no secret of his distate for contemporary music. "Frankly speaking, I am not sure some of these people deserve to be called composers," he told Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun, speaking of modern-day composers who sent him new works.

The comment pointed to a certain chilliness in Kissin's personality; he wasn't a crowd-pleaser like one of his chief rivals of the early 2000s, the Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang, and he had, wrote Michael White of London's Independent newspaper when Kissin was 27, "the manner of a cruelly introverted child." He refused to discuss his personal life with reporters, and it remained largely a mystery even as Kissin took up new residences in the media hothouses of London and New York. Still, critics and audiences continued to marvel at Kissin's power and control. His recording catalog grew rapidly as he made new CDs for RCA Red Seal, Sony Classical, and Deutsche Grammophon---the leading European and American classical labels.

As he became less a young phenomenon and more a mature artist with a lot of competition in a crowded classical field, some critics began to sour on Kissin. Andrew Clements of the Guardian in London complained of a mechanical quality in Kissin's playing, writing that "one suspects the back of his tailcoat hides the hole for a giant wind-up key." But Kissin took some of the criticism to heart---by 2005 he was expanding his repertoire to include such modernist composer as Arnold Schoenberg and Olivier Messaien---and he took all of it in stride. For audiences worldwide, Kissin communicated something of vital importance to the classical concert experience: a feeling of awe.

by Christine Ferran and James M. Manheim

Evgeny Kissin's Career

Started playing the piano at age two; made debut recital in Moscow in 1982; made debut recording on Melodiya label, U.S.S.R., 1984; signed with RCA Red Seal label; has toured internationally, 1984--.

Evgeny Kissin's Awards

Diapason d'Or and the Grande Prix of La Nouvelle Academie du Disque, France; Musical America magazine, Instrumentalist of the Year.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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