Evgeny Kissin’s memoirs reviewed by me in the TLS

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 July 2017 under Books  •  Leave a comment

This week I tweeted a link to my TLS review of pianist Evgeny Kissin’s book, ‘Memoirs and Reflections’. Some readers told me that the Times paywall had barred them from reading the whole review, so for anyone didn’t have a chance to buy the TLS, here is the review:

‘A neuroscientist once told me that few tasks are neurologically more complex than playing virtuoso piano music. Most pianists would agree that it is fearsomely difficult; occasionally, however, someone comes along for whom it all seems easy. Such is Evgeny Kissin, whose mastery of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov has had audiences queuing round the block since, as a radiant twelve-year-old, he played both Chopin piano concertos in a sensational Moscow concert. In 1997 he was the first pianist honoured with his own Proms solo recital at the Royal Albert Hall. It drew the largest audience yet seen at the Proms, and included an hour of encores. Fellow pianists often attend his concerts to marvel at the accuracy and security of his technique.

It would be of the deepest interest to learn how it feels to be such a pianist, but perhaps it is hardly surprising to find that his gift remains mysterious even to him. Memoirs and Reflections (“compiled and edited by Marina Arshinova”) is a tantalizing collection of snippets which feel like sparks thrown out from the fire rather than an account of the fire itself. As Kissin says in the preface, “the book is not only and indeed, not so much about me as about many other people!” About these other people he is always courteous and appreciative, but his portraits of family members, school teachers and colleagues such as the conductors Herbert von Karajan and Evgeny Svetlanov are slight, and many of his anecdotes would benefit from more historical context. He enthuses about Tikhon Khrennikov’s charm, for example, (“unfailingly the atmosphere [in his home] was one of warmth, cordiality, goodness and love”), without mentioning that Stalin’s appointee as Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers was feared by many.

Kissin was born in Moscow in 1971 and started learning the piano at the age of two. It has been noted that while his playing is exceptionally articulate, Kissin is a reluctant speaker. He was a quiet, intense child, often ill with pneumonia in the winters. He enjoyed the company of older people but was not drawn to play with other children, and confesses that he often practised the piano as an escape from socializing. In some ways, he has been carefully protected – even as an adult he was accompanied on many of his concert tours by his mother and the only piano teacher he has ever had, Anna Pavlovna Kantor – yet he has had to live in the full glare of international adulation. He recounts that when Kantor first laid eyes on him, she “immediately fell in love with me for all her life”. She later moved in with the Kissins, emigrating with them in 1991 to New York and later to London and Paris.

“Never in my life have I striven for fame, and in my youth I even found it a painful burden”, Kissin writes. Touring internationally in his twenties, he sought to escape “a sense of routine”. He quotes with gentle amusement from some of the sillier fanmail he receives. The book opens with an extraordinary quotation from a Russian psychotherapist who glimpsed the young Kissin riding a bicycle and realized that “rushing towards me was some fantastic Being, living beyond the bounds of any words, definition or categories, ages and so on. This was a Being of amazing beauty . . . ”. With quiet detachment, Kissin seems to accept that it is simply his fate to arouse such feelings.

Longstanding fans will probably feel that they have read much of this material elsewhere. It does not help that some of the anecdotes seem stilted in translation, or that the book seems hastily put together: there are some inexcusable typos (a photo of the American pianist Van Cliburn is captioned “Vain Kliburn”; the conductor Zubin Mehta is “Metha”) and some non-explanatory footnotes (“The key of the dominant is opposite to the key of the tonic”). There is a select discography, but no index.

Kissin is now forty-five, a committed Israeli citizen, and recently married, though he does not share his wife’s name with us. (It is Karina Arzumanova; the pair have known each other since childhood.)  He appears to have reached a stage in his life where he needs to contemplate his talent from a greater distance. If being a world-famous pianist was something that happened to him rather than something he chose, it becomes clear that what he does now choose is to celebrate his Jewish heritage. He reads extensively in Yiddish literature and offers recitations of Yiddish poetry alongside performances of piano works by little-known Jewish composers. Having himself composed a little in childhood, he has started once again – he mentions some chamber works and a cycle of piano pieces including the delightfully named “Dodecaphonic Tango”– and is eager to see where this path will lead. These activities clearly bring him a new and valuable sense of mission and agency.’

Times Literary Supplement, 7 July 2017


Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 June 2017 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

For various reasons I’ve been to quite a few amateur performances recently. All were enjoyable, but I noticed something that was common to them all. It puzzled me, but I am not sure if I have simply forgotten what it is like to be a beginner or a non-professional.

What struck me was that as the music became animated in character, the musicians did not become animated along with it. As the tension built up, or the volume increased, they moved their hands and arms faster on their bows, keyboards or whatever, but their physical demeanour didn’t change and their facial expressions certainly didn’t. (Before anyone tells me that this is because they were playing po-faced classical music: they weren’t.) To me the impassivity looked strange, as if there was a barrier between the players and the music, even though they were the ones delivering the music.

Now, I am not suggesting that anyone should ‘act’ when they play music – far from it –  but I would love them to allow themselves to be animated by the spirit of the music as it builds up a head of steam. I long to see something rippling through the orchestra or choir like wind through a field of corn.

‘Animato’ is one of my favourite musical expressions. It suggests being open to the music, letting it into your interior life, allowing its energy to enter your playing.  Actually, doing so is a very good way of dissolving the painful self-consciousness that can inhibit you when you play in public. If you focus on the ‘story’ of the music, you forget about yourself.

It’s quite possible that if I could see a film of myself performing as a young student I might find my own demeanour inexpressive. I always thought I was registering the changing mood of the music, but did it show? I don’t know. At any rate, I now find that I watch people’s body language and search their faces as they play for signs that they are following the inner life of the music. It’s so satisfying when they are!

Adjusting the piano stool for a concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 June 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Adjusting the piano stool to the right height for a concert may seem the simplest thing. When I finish rehearsing in a concert hall, I always leave the piano stool adjusted to the right height. The more old-fashioned piano stools have wooden handles that are quite hard work to turn, and I don’t want to have that strain on my wrists immediately before I perform. The newer piano stools have a ‘release’ mechanism operated by a handle under the seat. You reach under the seat to move the handle and allow the seat to move up or down. For best results, you shouldn’t have your weight on the seat. It’s not easy to reach under the seat, take your weight off the seat and adjust the stool without looking clumsy, and you don’t want to start a concert like that.

If I know that a piano tuner is going to be on stage between rehearsal and concert, I always ask them to leave the stool as it is. They always say that they are mindful of doing so, because they know how sensitive pianists are about such things.

So the stool is left at the height which seemed perfect at 6pm. Lo and behold, when I come back on to the platform at 7.30pm, the stool suddenly seems too low. I end up having to adjust it in front of the audience.

Why does this happen? I’ve tried to think of explanations, such as that between rehearsal and concert I have changed my outfit. But in truth there can be no meaningful difference between the thickness of, say, jeans and the thickness of smart black trousers. Even the difference between the fabric of trousers and of a concert dress is minute.

The different must be psychological. When I come on stage to perform, I must be in a different frame of mind.  More sensitive, more picky, more neurotic? Secretly embarrassed and looking for something to fidget with? Trying to put off the moment when the performance begins? Feeling ‘small’? Is it to do with a subtle change of posture caused by performance adrenalin?

I suppose any of these may be possible, though actually, it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels as if the piano stool was fine at the rehearsal, but is too low at the concert.

Cerne Abbas Music Festival is over for another year

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 June 2017 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve just returned from the Gaudier Ensemble’s annual festival at Cerne Abbas in Dorset (photo: the last piece of the final concert – the Dvorak piano quintet with (L to R) Marieke Blankestejn, Ulrike Janssen, me, Iris Juda and Henrik Brendstrup).

One of the pleasures of the festival is seeing the same people year after year – not only my colleagues but also people in the village and members of the audience. Some audiences are shy about communicating their reactions to the musicians, but perhaps because many people come to all the concerts, and keep bumping into us in the street or in the village shop between performances, they gradually pluck up the courage to speak to us, and when they do they often say amazing things. I often feel that in this one week I have been able to store up enough appreciative comments to keep me going for a long while.

This was the first time we had all met together since our cellist Christoph Marks died unexpectedly at New Year. It felt very strange to be in the village without seeing him in his usual places. On the Saturday night, there was a concert in his memory. His old friend Iris Juda spoke movingly about him, and at the end of the programme, five of his friends played one of his favourite pieces, the Schubert string quintet.  Many of the audience spoke about Christoph, and it was clear what an impression he made on everyone over the years. There was a special atmosphere that night as everyone drank in Schubert’s extraordinary mixture of sadness and serenity.

Major-key music for sad lyrics

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 May 2017 under Daily Life, Musings  •  15 Comments

Last night I watched a very interesting episode of a BBC Arena series about ‘American Epic’ music, beginning with music from the Appalachian region, featuring the Carter Family from West Virginia who in the late 1920s brought the folk music of the remote hills to the nation’s attention.

The words of the songs were often sad or wistful, such as the Carter Family’s famous ‘Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow’, which tells of a grieving man abandoned by his lover on the eve of their wedding. Despite the lyrics, however, the music of the sad songs was always (or at least, in all the songs featured in the TV programme) in a major key and an upbeat tempo. I’ve noticed this with other kinds of American ‘country music’ and been puzzled by it. Perhaps I have been brought up in a different tradition, but if I were a songwriter I would find it unnatural to couch a sad song in a major key, unless I were aiming at some kind of ironical effect, such as you find in the songs of the Berlin Cabaret era.

Once or twice when listening to Italian opera or oratorio I have had a similar feeling of perplexity when listening to sad arias in robustly handled major keys.  Yet to those composers, and to their fans, there is clearly no ‘cognitive dissonance’. They don’t feel that the sad words are being trivialised by sunny harmonies.

In some of Mozart’s arias, or in Schubert’s and Schumann’s Lieder, there is a very poignant use of sad words set to major-key harmonies, but these effects tend to be transient and all the more powerful because of the way they emerge from minor-key settings, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds for a moment.

But ‘Bury me beneath the weeping willow‘ sung at a jolly trot? It’s a puzzle to me.