MUSIC / Ready to meet his Emperor: When Yevgeny Kissin played Schubert, Brahms and Liszt in his debut British recital earlier this month he rendered some critics almost speechless. He is back in London to play Beethoven. Robert Cowan met the pianist

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YEVGENY Kissin's Emperor will reign in London soon after his own fatherland votes on a democratic referendum. 'That's a wonderful thing,' the Russian says confidently, 'but the majority can also make mistakes. Don't forget that the German Nazi party was elected democratically.' Happily, community rather than autocracy is the theme of Sunday's Royal Festival Hall concert, part of the International Orchestra Series, where the thoughtful but still childlike 21-year-old pianist and the European Community Youth Orchestra under Claudio Abbado are due to collaborate in Beethoven's towering Fifth Concerto. Kissin has already been playing the Emperor for more than a year and is currently working on the Third and Fourth Concertos. The Beethoven sonatas, though, pose a more exacting challenge, especially the later ones.

'I am not quite ready for the sonatas,' he says with characteristic modesty, 'although I have already learnt many of them - but not with the intention of playing them in public. I'll start to do that as soon as possible. However, I'm sure that right now I'm not ready for, say, the Hammerklavier, or the very last sonata.'

Kissin is reflective, polite and quietly responsive. His English is fitfully fluent, and he weighs his words with Wittgensteinian deliberation. He is already able to draw freely on an astonishingly wide-ranging fund of musical experiences, and could even claim to be part of musical history - although the thought has probably never occurred to him. In 1988, Kissin played the Tchaikovsky First Concerto under Karajan in Berlin; but was Karajan's view of Tchaikovsky compatible with his?

'It's a complicated question. I would play it differently by myself, though not totally differently. On the other hand, I do agree with Karajan's main principle - that many people play the work too fast and too loud, that there is no music in their approach. Of course I knew that before, but it was meaningful for me to hear it from him.' Confirmation, rather than coercion . . . or a little of both, perhaps? 'He was a special case,' replied Kissin, with obvious respect, 'but when I work with great conductors like Abbado or Giulini, I listen to what they say because there I am in a completely different position; I want to learn from them. A really intelligent musician will never wilfully obtrude on a colleague's interpretation; he will never eliminate another musician's personality. And that is something that has never actually happened to me.'

These joint qualities of humility and single-mindedness are reflected in a fully-integrated personality. 'I am absolutely sure that the musician cannot be separated from the individual,' he insists, 'and when people sometimes ask me if I consider myself a romantic musician, I always answer that I am a romantic person, and that's what colours my music-making.' But does being a 'romantic' mean following one's musical intuition rather than playing 'by the book'? Kissin's answer was unequivocal. 'Yes, I do follow intuition. I recall that one of Chopin's students played a particular piece differently to the way Chopin wrote it, and when Chopin heard the perfomance himself, he remarked: 'I may have written it differently, but your way is also good.' We know from Rachmaninov's recordings of his own music that he very often altered the notes, and I think this is absolutely acceptable. But that doesn't mean one has the right to instigate total anarchy, or show disrespect for the composer. There should be no extremes. The score is, as Pablo Casals once said, 'an imperfect way to express musical ideas'.'

Striving to express the inexpressible sits at the very root of Kissin's musical credo. A passion for the abstract workings of music is reflected in his love of Bach, a composer he plays more in private than in public. I seemed to hear more polyphony in his Schubert Wanderer than in anyone else's, especially in parts of the andante. But the idea prompted an extra-long pause. 'I never thought about that. Regarding polyphony, there is in Russia a wonderful book of musical aphorisms by a very old and respected piano teacher, Nathan Perlman. There he writes that 'many people find polyphony in Bach's music and miss it in Chopin, Scriabin and so on. Polyphony doesn't belong only to Bach'.' Neither does it provide an end in itself, and when Kissin recalls the teeming polyphonic detail in a Scriabin sonata, he also stresses the personal, elusive element in Scriabin's music.

'I think Scriabin is a composer one needs to feel, because to 'understand' him is not enough. If he's not close to you, you cannot do anything about it. Scriabin was one of a kind.' Which suggests a pragmatic attitude to the communicative limitations of certain music - you feel it or you don't, and that applies equally to performers and listeners. But do political and cultural differences inhibit our appreciation of certain composers? To understand, for example, Prokofiev, do we need to know something about the composer's life in Stalinist Russia? Kissin thinks not, and when we talked about Prokofiev's so-called 'War Trilogy' of the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sonatas (two of which - the Sixth and the Eighth - he plays), he insisted on the individual nature of each work as above any cyclic unity. He is going to record the First and Third Concertos with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (for release next year), hopefully with the Fourth Sonata as a bonus. When I suggested a parallel between his art and Abbado's - both musicians combine a certain directness with refinement of execution - Kissin was astonished. This refreshing lack of vanity informs his attitude to his past recordings. Two forthcoming Chopin recitals from RCA duplicate some repertoire already out in earlier recordings on the MK (Olympia) label; but Kissin has no qualms about his more youthful statements sharing shelf space with his latest, more mature interpretations. 'I think that they are different,' he says, 'but I was happy with those earlier recordings and I am glad to have them available now. They represent two stages in my musical development.'

Generally, he prefers to play a piece many times in public before recording it, although there are exceptions: he encountered and learnt the Haydn D major Concerto merely days before he committed it to disc.

While Kissin is fond of jokes and ingenious aphorisms, he is basically a serious character and prefers to read history, politics and poetry. Yes, he likes old films - Chaplin in particular - and loves to listen to old recordings. But when I suggested that, for some artists, listening can pose a very grave danger, he gave a shrug. 'You mean a young artist is in danger of being influenced too much? But if he hasn't got a strong mind, he will never become a real artist. And if he wants to be influenced, he will be.' Such views augur well for Yevgeny Kissin's future.

Yevgeny Kissin performs Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5 with the European Community Youth Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado 7.30 tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall (see listing below). The concert is given in aid of the Keyboard Trust for Young Professional Performers

(Photograph omitted)