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Looking back, what are your earliest musical memories?
My earliest musical memory is of sitting at our old Bechstein and playing by ear, improvising, composing a song about how our neighbour at the dacha treated their dog called Gypsy badly, and my father recorded me on his old Adidas tape recorder with large brown bobbins. On the music stand hung an ivory-coloured microphone the size of the palm of a hand. Then Father wound the tape back and I heard how I had been trying to sing the popular Soviet song A Strange Star Shines in a low voice and Father said to me, “You sang this the day before yesterday.”
Evgeny Kissin. Photo © Johann Sebastian Hänel/DG
Who are the pianists and musicians you really admired growing up?
I would say Emil Gilels, Glenn Gould, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, Annie Fischer, the Moscow Virtuosi, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, Yuri Bashmet... and there were two elderly pianists in Moscow who never became known internationally, but were wonderful musicians and had their own faithful audiences. Their playing was very close to my heart: Teodor Gutman and Oleg Boshnyakovich.
Did you have any favourite recordings you would listen to in those days?
I had many, so let me mention the few that first come to my mind: Eugen Jochum’s recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (I taped it from the radio and then listened to it a lot), Solomon’s recordings of Beethoven’s 28th and 29th Sonatas and of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Furtwängler’s recording of Schubert’s C Major Symphony, Heinrich Neuhaus’ recording of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, Arthur Rubinstein’s recording of Chopin’s Second Concerto, Emil Gilels’ recording of Chopin’s Second Sonata, Dinu Lipatti’s recording of Chopin’s Third Sonata, Stanislav Neuhaus’ recording of Chopin’s Ballades, Annie Fischer’s recording of Schumann’s Fantasie, Vladimir Sofronitsky’s recording of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Then there was Felix von Weingartner’s recording of Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi, Fritz Kreisler’s recordings of the Mendelssohn and Brahms Violin Concertos, Jascha Heifetz’s recordings of the Mendelssohn and Sibelius Violin Concertos... Of course, I loved listening to Shostakovich’s music, but I don’t remember who the performers were on those recordings.
I also greatly loved two recordings by Glenn Gould, very different from one another but both real masterpieces (each one in its own way): Bach’s Goldberg Variations (the last recording) and the piano arrangement of Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
You made your debut at age ten after which your career took off very quickly. How challenging was it achieving great success at such a young age?
The thing was that I never strove for success. I just loved playing piano, played well – and the success came.
What are the most important things your teacher Anna Pavlovna Kantor taught you?
Having been my only teacher, she taught me absolutely everything I can do on the piano. I don’t know what the most important things were: everything in piano playing is important.
Were you ever interested in a career outside of music?
No, I have never been interested in and can’t imagine myself having any other profession. And I have never been interested in having a “career” in music, I just always wanted to play piano: something which became an integral part of my being since before I can remember myself.
You’ve performed with some of the world’s greatest conductors – who have been the most interesting to work with?
The greatest conductors I worked with were Herbert von Karajan and Carlo Maria Giulini. They were ‘the last of the Mohicans’. I’ll always cherish the moments of making music with them.
You became a citizen of Israel in December 2013. Why was this important to you?
To answer this question let me simply quote the letter I wrote to the Israeli government:
“I am a Jew, Israel is a Jewish state – and since long ago I have felt that Israel, although I do not live there, is the only state in the world with which I can fully identify myself, whose case, problems, tragedies and very destiny I perceive to be mine. If I, as a human being and artist represent anything in the world, it is my Jewish people, and therefore Israel is the only state on our planet which I want to represent with my art and all my public activities, no matter where I live.
When Israel’s enemies try to disrupt concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Jerusalem Quartet, I want them to come and make troubles at my concerts, too: because Israel’s case is my case, Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared of the troubles which Israeli musicians encounter when they represent the Jewish State beyond its borders.
I have always deeply despised chauvinism and have never regarded my people to be superior to other peoples; I feel truly blessed that my profession is probably the most international one in the world, that I play music created by great composers of different countries, that I travel all over the world and share my beloved music with people of different countries and nationalities – but I want all the people who appreciate my art to know that I am a Jew, that I belong to the People of Israel. That’s why now I feel a natural desire to travel around the world with an Israeli passport.”
Your new CD is all Beethoven. How has your relationship with his music evolved?
I loved listening to Beethoven’s music since early childhood; I still have a recording of myself singing Beethoven’s Rage Over a Lost Penny when I was about one and a half years old. After I began my music studies, of course, I learned some Beethoven sonatas at school. However, it took me many years to be able to play Beethoven’s music well, to feel really at home in it as a performer. Now it’s an integral part of my repertoire.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue playing piano – as much as possible and as well as possible.
Evgeny Kissin's new Beethoven disc is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.