Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Kissin in action

The child prodigy and piano virtuoso has always divided critics. But his defence of Brexit and Israel may prove his gravest heresy yet

Is Evgeny Kissin, born in Moscow in 1971, the most famous concert pianist in the world? Probably not, if you stretch the definition of ‘concert pianist’ to encompass the circus antics of Lang Lang, the 34-year-old Chinese virtuoso who — in the words of a lesser-known but outstandingly gifted colleague — ‘can play well but chooses not to’.

But you could certainly argue that Kissin has been the world’s most enigmatic great pianist since the death of Sviatoslav Richter in 1997 – though, unlike the promiscuously gay Richter, his overwhelming concern with privacy does not conceal any exotic secrets. He has recently married for the first time, but chooses not to publicise the fact. I don’t see why I should name his bride, since he hasn’t, but it was obvious when I met him last week that he’s very happy.

No one close to Kissin will have been surprised that details of his romantic life are entirely missing from his Memoirs and Reflections, just published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The book is a mere 190 pages long and that includes a ‘select discography’ from which key recordings have been omitted — for example, the Mozart D minor concerto K466 that Kissin directed from the keyboard with the Kremerata Baltica in 2010. It’s the most gloriously full-bodied performance — powerful, delicate, with legato arches that could hold up a Bruckner symphony. To anyone who thinks Kissin did his best work as a wunderkind, I’d say: listen to this.

On the other hand, no one can forget that he was a prodigy, and nor should they: at the age of 12, he produced a recording of the Chopin piano concertos that still rivals the finest in the catalogue. In his mid-twenties he gave the first ever solo piano recital at the Proms. Not one of the hundreds of juvenile virtuosos from the Far Eastern piano factories has come close to equalling his achievement.

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