A prodigiously talented child who began to play the piano at the age of two, Kissin entered the Gnessin Institute at six where he studied with Anna Pavlovna Kantor. He made his orchestral debut at the age of ten, giving his recital debut the following year. It was in 1984, at the age of thirteen, that Kissin performed both of Chopin’s piano concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic. This concert was recorded and issued on LP in the West, resulting in worldwide interest in the young Russian. He first appeared outside the USSR in 1985, playing in Budapest and East Berlin, and two years later made his West European debut at the Berlin Festival. The following year he toured Europe with the Moscow Virtuosi and Vladimir Spivakov and played at the London Proms. At fifteen, Kissin made his debut in Japan and performed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan when he was seventeen. At nineteen he gave his American debut in Carnegie Hall playing both of Chopin’s piano concertos with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Metha and a week later gave his recital debut in the same hall. In 1997 Kissin was the first pianist to give a solo recital at the Proms, a concert at which he gave seven encores. He has worked with all the major orchestras and conductors including Claudio Abbado, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Carlo Maria Giulini and Daniel Barenboim.
A shy and reclusive man, Kissin is not an easy interviewee and reveals very little of himself. He has lived in London with his mother, father, sister and piano teacher for many years. At the end of the 1990s Kissin’s playing began to divide the critics, some hearing in his playing a lack of maturity and depth, that he was still playing the piano like an adolescent prodigy. Although some critics have been not only unfair, but unkind to Kissin in their reviews, he remains an immensely gifted and talented pianist, and one can only hope that some of the tension he displays in his interpretations will relax as he gets older.
Kissin excels in the Romantic and Russian repertoire. As yet, he plays no pure Bach or early keyboard composers and no avant-garde music. He has plenty of time to discover these, but he generally plays in public music with which he knows he has a close affinity.
The concert that Kissin gave on 27 March 1984 with the Moscow Philharmonic and Dmitri Kitaenko is impressive by any standards, but for a thirteen-year-old it is extraordinary. This is natural musicianship from a prodigy who is not out solely to dazzle his audience. Many record companies obviously wanted Kissin on their roster, and his performances have appeared on RCA/BMG, Deutsche Grammophon, Sony and Melodya.
There followed many live recordings: Kissin’s Carnegie Hall debut recital in 1990, the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Carlo Maria Giulini from 1992 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa from 1993. It was after this performance that Kissin gave two encores that almost eclipsed the concerto. A live performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 from September 1993 with the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado was issued by Deutsche Grammophon coupled with the Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 10, and the same label issued a recital disc containing Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy Op. 15, Brahms’s Fantasien Op. 116 and some works of Liszt.
His recordings continue to receive mixed reviews, with individual discs receiving opinions from opposite ends of the critical spectrum.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).