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“Rachmaninoff is very close to my heart”.

In his portrait concerts, which Jewgenij Kissin will perform for the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 2022/23, the master pianist makes a passionate commitment to Sergei Rachmaninoff. Strong emotions have a deeper effect after phases of silence.

A tall, slender gentleman in an elegant short coat, who leisurely roams the green zones of Prague and the surrounding area: this could be Yevgeny Kissin, with whom we were able to communicate, at least from a distance. During a whole year – 2020 – he had only two concert appearances, he says, at the Salzburg Festival. “For this, I am very grateful to the Austrian government for allowing this to happen.” But he doesn’t complain in any other way either. “Prague is an ideal place to get through a lockdown. It’s a beautiful city. During the pandemic, it wasn’t so crowded with tourists. But more importantly, I’m surrounded by my big, wonderful family here. So I personally didn’t suffer.”

“Rachmaninoff’s music has a quality that speaks directly to people. There are no language barriers.”

Kissin’s “free time” was very much filled. “I walked a lot, 15 to 20 km a day. I have written two so-called ‘coronavirus diaries’, in Yiddish. It describes what I was doing, but also my thoughts on what was happening around me, as well as reflections on the past. For the time being, they have only been published in the internet journal ‘Yidish branzhe’, but at some point they will be published in book form.” Music and the spoken word: both seem to keep pace with each other in Jewgenij Kissin’s work. As a world-famous pianist he is of a lonely greatness, but as a writer his talent is hardly inferior, even if this is not known to a wide audience. His “lectures” on Shakespeare are probably still remembered by the regular audience of the Verbier Festival: always freely presented in print-ready English. But in recent years, another language has piqued his intense interest: Yiddish. Kissin grew up with Russian as his mother tongue because that’s how his parents spoke. Only his maternal grandmother spoke Yiddish, which encouraged Kissin to learn this language himself as a child. Today, he not only speaks excellently, but also writes texts and poems in Yiddish.

Composing is also a good thing for him. His first pieces, written as a child for his beloved piano, were not continued for a while, partly because his international fame as a pianist, combined with intensive travel, left few opportunities. But during the last decade, in which he has reduced travel a little and is now at 66 performances a year, four compositions with opus numbers have appeared in print and most of them have also been performed.

Now, however, the concert calendar is filling up again with many dates. And one thing is clear: During the 2022/23 season, Jewgenij Kissin will focus on the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, because 2023 will mark the 150th anniversary of the festival. The composer’s birthday is coming up. “In Russia, you are surrounded by your music from childhood, even more so if you grow up in a half-musical family (your mother and sister are piano teachers, your father was an engineer, note). Therefore, Rachmaninoff is very close to my heart. However, I don’t think you have to be Russian to love this music. It has a quality that speaks directly to people. There are no language barriers.” He also greatly appreciates the recordings of the pianist Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest ever, as he says, not only in the interpretations of his own works, but also in Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven or Grieg – and as a duo partner of Fritz Kreisler.

At the Vienna Musikverein, which is dedicating a portrait to Yevgeny Kissin with three concerts in the 2022/23 season, the pianist has precisely divided his highly personal Rachmaninoff focus. First, the Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jakub Hrůša, a conductor who has had a remarkable international career over the past decade. In January 2023, a recital with Renée Fleming. Their joint performance at the Musikverein in 2020, like the following concerts of the tour, fell victim to the first lockdown. Now they return with a new program, with songs and romances by Rachmaninoff – his wish for the soprano – as well as solo pieces for piano. Kissin’s third portrait concert during the Musikverein Festival 2023, a piano recital, will also be dedicated to Rachmaninoff.

When Jewgenij Kissin is busy with his music, learning, practicing or composing, he withdraws completely into himself, no sound is allowed to disturb him. How sensitively he reacts to sounds is also shown by the fact that, as he says, he can also hear colors. And this, in turn, is reflected in his playing. His repertoire is already extensive and varied, ranging from classical to the 20th century, with the great piano music of the 19th century playing a major role. His 50th birthday in autumn 2021, however, was an occasion to think particularly carefully about his own path. In addition, shortly before that, there was the death of his only lifelong mentor Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who had also been a member of the family for decades. She was 98 years old and was an essential orientation figure for him until the end. She was known for recognizing and promoting the individual talents of her students. This has proven itself a hundred times over with Jewgenij Kissin, whom she was the only one to teach.

“I’m not quite as physically strong as I used to be. So in the next few years, before it’s too late, I will play pieces that, in addition to all other qualities, also require full physical strength: Rachmaninoff’s ‘Études-tableaux’ op. 33 and his ‘Moments musicaux’. Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, which I have played and recorded before, but I am not happy with it and will do it again, including his Sonatas Nos. 2 and 7. I also feel ready to play some of Bach’s great solo compositions: the ‘Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue’, for example.”

A rarely heard, little-known work is also on Kissin’s wish list: the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor op. 30 from 1882 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the only large-scale composition by the Russian master for this instrument. The pianist has also contributed a great deal to advocating for the work of Soviet composers. Just think of Tikhon Khrennikov, whose compositions were often put in a political corner and criticized as backward because of his high-ranking position in the Soviet state. In the meantime, the compositional skills of this composer are beginning to be appreciated. With his own compositions, Kissin still holds back as an interpreter, letting others play his chamber music works, for example, and limits himself mainly to surprise encores such as the tango from his Four Piano Pieces.

What are his wishes for the future: “I hope,” says Kissin, “to live long enough to be able to play everything I want.”

Text by Edith Jachimowicz.

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