Playing for time for time

He sang before he could speak. He's been playing the piano since he could reach the keys. And some already place him in the pantheon of all-time keyboard greats. Now, at 26, Evgeny Kissin has been rewarded with the Proms' first ever solo recital. But first he plays a game of verbal chess with Edward Seckerson
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When Evgeny Kissin was a year old (or so he's reliably informed), he stood up in his cot, pointed decisively at the piano, and uttered one word: "OPEN!" So any suggestion that this prodigy was shamelessly exploited can be quickly discounted. His parents were obedient. They hadn't planned things this way (sons grow up to be engineers like their fathers, don't they?). His mother played, his elder sister played. Evgeny listened. He was such a quiet child. (Didn't they realise he was listening?) He was no trouble. (Didn't they realise he was concentrating?) He sang before he could speak. Bach's A major Fugue. His sister was studying it at the time. (Didn't they realise he needed quiet to memorise it?) He was 11 months old. Not yet old enough to reach the keyboard. (A minor detail.) But time was pressing. And the initiative was his. "OPEN!" Like I say, his parents were obedient.

Kissin can't remember a time when he wasn't playing the piano. And he remembers everything. Total recall. At three-and-a-half (you see), the improvisations began. Anything he heard he could sing, and anything he sang he could play. At six his parents packed him off to the Gnessin School of Music for Gifted Children in Moscow. His teacher was (still is) Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who gave him a volume of Tchaikovsky, suggesting that he might begin work on three or four of the pieces. He memorised the lot.

"He could play everything, but didn't know anything," she later said of him. Meaning that the technical skills, the instinct, intuition, musicality - the elements - were already in place. Reason would follow.

Kissin made his concert debut at the age of 10 in Mozart's Piano Concerto K466. A year later he played his first solo recital in Moscow. Then came the big one. In March 1984, he performed both Chopin Piano Concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the State Philharmonic under Dmitri Kitaenko. The call went out around the world: "This kid is going to put Horowitz out of business." Herbert von Karajan beckoned from Berlin. The story goes that he was so entranced by the precocious 17-year- olds account of Tchaikovsky's B flat minor Concerto that he forgot to cue the flute's entry after the cadenza. Kissin is 26 now and some believe that a place has already been reserved for him in the pantheon of all- time keyboard greats. Mark Zilberquist, the American critic and author of Great Russian Pianists, was quoted as saying: "He is partly on earth and partly somewhere else. He was never a child prodigy, but a small genius. Now he is just a genius."

"Partly on earth and partly somewhere else..." Now there's a phrase that stays with you. There is something unearthly, other-worldly, about Kissin's appearance and demeanour. You see it first from afar, from your seat in the concert hall. The walk to the piano, the bow - lanky, awkward, diffident, as if the child has not quite grown into the man's body, as if that giant leap from childhood to manhood happened so fast that there simply wasn't time. And then he plays, and the awkwardness, the diffidence falls away, and there is total harmony - mind, body, spirit. Meeting Kissin -face to face - alters the perspective, but does little to dispel those first impressions. It's a child's face, an open face, with this shock of big hair which appears to have gone AWOL from a David Lynch movie. The smile is nervous but sincere, the manner charming but professional. He knows how to behave in an interview situation (as in: he'd rather be undergoing root canal work but doesn't show it), though it soon becomes apparent that the process will be slow and painstaking, that to reach him, to understand him, will require one to probe beyond the concise, even cryptic, responses he at first volunteers, to coax and cajole, maybe even insist a little.

You begin with a concession of sorts. He is so plainly an intuitive musician, a born communicator, that talking about music must be difficult for him? "Very much so..." Long pause (whatever you do, don't jump in now or you'll kill the punchline)... "but not impossible." A half-smile, as if to say, "Well done, good start, you've got my number." And I have. Kissin is not an easy interviewee. His English is excellent: fluent, authoritative, only slightly accented. But he uses words sparingly (fair enough, it's his fingers that do the talking). And he thinks long and hard about which words. Sometimes they're not worth waiting for, other times they really hit the spot. It depends. The waiting can be unnerving, even frustrating, and on occasions your question may be met with a scowl or an irritated- sounding counter-thrust, which isn't rudeness, just concentration. Kissin likes to play chess. I'd say he exhibits a similar approach in conversation.

So you press him some more as to why it's so difficult for him to talk about music, and he gives you what, by his standards, is quite an expansive answer: "I feel a certain resistance. Music seems to me to speak so eloquently for itself that verbalising it sometimes feels pointless, even vulgar." So how does he imagine I feel having to do just that each and every working day? It's a light-hearted rebuke. He is unfazed. "It's quite different for critics and musicologists. My task is to present music as music, not as words..." Check, but not yet mate.

Kissin needs to play the piano almost as much as he wants to. Ask him if he feels he missed out on not having a "normal" childhood (a respiratory problem kept him from school long before his performing did) and his answer is "No, not at all, because sitting at the piano playing was what I wanted to do more than anything in the world." But how could he possibly have known, at two or three years of age? "I don't think I ever knew. It was an urge, purely instinctive." So playing the piano never felt like a substitute, the last refuge of a lonely child? Parental pressure was never brought to bear? Only to practise. He never enjoyed practice. He could happily play "all day long", but practice - that was something else. Now, of course, there is less of a distinction to be drawn. He practises - meaning he sits down to play - as much as he needs to. And he instinctively knows how much that is? "Yes, of course."

So how is it with performance? Does he know, does he instinctively know, when it's working, when the dots on the page begin taking on a life of their own? Leonard Bernstein always maintained that he could gauge precisely how well or otherwise a performance was going by the extent to which he felt he was composing the piece himself. Kissin can relate to that. He describes the feeling as one of total release, as if all your concerns - technical and otherwise - suddenly, mysteriously, evaporate and you are at ease, at one, with the piece.

"The element of improvisation is often present in my playing. Of course this depends on the repertoire. But this element is often present, and in such moments when I feel especially inspired, when everything is falling into place, it is present to an even higher degree..." And so a piece like Schumann's C major Fantasy - that most exalted song of love and longing from Robert to Clara (check out Kissin's RCA recording) - becomes his song, caught (or so it would seem) in the moment of creation, in the playing of it. And when that happens, when Kissin is flying, we all get sucked into the jet stream.

But how about when it doesn't happen? How about the occasions (and there must be some) when the force is simply not with him? What then? Engage automatic pilot? Some critics have suggested that Kissin's prodigious technique can be a handicap, that knowing he can rely upon it takes the imperative out of his playing: "I cannot rely on anything unless I prepare well," he replies, in a manner redolent of an official statement. But he has taken the point. And he has a story to tell. Ten years ago, while on tour in Japan with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra and their violinist/ conductor Vladimir Spivakov, he "didn't play as well as he should have". After the concert, Spivakov came to his room to ask what had happened. "I explained that my mood was all wrong, that I just couldn't find a way into the music. And he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He said, `A real artist must be able to create the right mood for himself'."

So he never knowingly coasts the music, never knowingly goes along for the ride. Some performances yield more than others: unexpected details, different inflections, voicings, colours, a unique atmosphere. Some performances simply provide more answers than others. How does that feel? "Very nice." Just "very nice"? What if it's a special moment: do you think about it afterwards, analyse it, seek to preserve it? "Difficult to say..." And here comes another of those interminable pauses for thought, here comes the scowl, the shifty silence. He starts to form a sentence but stops. You want to help him out but you know not to. He's focusing. This reply will be worthy of Gary Kasparov... "I'm not even sure that I always remember those moments. As far as preserving them is concerned, well, as long as I preserve my love for the music and that in turn inspires me in performance, then those things will keep happening by themselves. Which doesn't mean," he adds in a rare burst of animation, "that everything that's good about my playing happens spontaneously. Not at all. I always have a clear plan in my head of how I'm going to play. But I often have to make things sound spontaneous. That is, of course, different from when something just comes to me unexpectedly during a performance. Both elements are important and necessary."

But can the one overwhelm the other? Am I alone in thinking that his live 1993 recording of the Rachmaninov Third (Shine with the notes, as Nicholas Kenyon quipped at his Proms press conference) sounds oddly calculated, a young man's self-conscious attempt to play down, even subdue, the virtuosic elements - to be awfully grown up about the piece? A young man with something to prove? "Not at all. I played it, and I still play it, in the way that I feel it." But less self-consciously? "I think it's a mistake to treat it as a showpiece." And so do I, but I find it hard to believe that your performance - or rather your view - of the piece hasn't changed since then? "You rightly corrected yourself: my performance must have changed but my view hasn't." Checkmate, I think.

Tomorrow afternoon, Kissin becomes the first pianist ever to give a solo recital at the Proms. On a podium which will place him right at the heart of the action - that is, in the arena, in the bosom of the promenaders -Kissin will play a programme of Haydn, Liszt and Chopin. The Chopin pieces - the Two Nocturnes, Op 27, and the Sonata No 3 in B minor - are among his most favourite in all music. He can't explain why. He is reluctant to try. I probe. Could it be the solitary nature of this music (private passions secretly indulged in public)? Could there perhaps be something about the man (he has dutifully devoured the letters) that he secretly identifies with? "I think if I could express why it is I love Chopin so much, then it would not be love but something else... Maybe one day a psychoanalyst will discover why. But, for now, it's too personal a feeling to want to analyse. I simply can't say..." Any more than he can say what it is about 18th-century French painting and Italian opera (yes, even Verdi, particularly Verdi) that he so dislikes. Kissin is full of surprises. He likes walking. And you're purring in agreement - "Ah, yes, long country walks..." - when he adds, "fast walks in cities".

He reckons if he weren't a musician he would either be a journalist or a tour guide. How so? Exploration. Discovery. Different places, different cultures, different languages. Just like music. "And as tour guide you are showing the same things to different people, over and over again. And you have to keep them interested. Just like playing..."

He sometimes plays for friends. Just for friends. It's the nearest he gets to those solitary childhood days when he played just for pleasure. Does he ever feel that the audience is an intrusion, that even one listener is too many? "NEVER." (The emphasis he places on that one word speaks volumes.) "I play for those who come to listen to me. My audiences are an inspiration to me. And if they are not, then it's usually my fault. It's my business to keep them interested and attentive..."

A minute or two pass. The conversation has moved on... "Please, I would like to add something... Because I love the music I play so much, I want to share it with my audiences. In no way are they an intrusion." Another "official statement". Just to make sure. But it really isn't necessary. Among Kissin's press cuttings is the story of a recital in Bologna where fire officers were forced to turn off the electricity at midnight after his 13th encore. His Prom is at 3pm. John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique are due on at 7.30.

Evgeny Kissin at the Proms: 3pm tomorrow, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on BBC Radio 3. Kissin's new recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 5 is released this week on Sony Classical (SK 62926)