It’s a bad wind… Temporarily prevented from performing in Verbier by a tendonitis in his left shoulder, Evgeny Kissin suddenly has time in front of him and is in the mood, I am told, to give an interview. So I intervene directly, because he is a man who normally does his best to avoid giving interviews. What triggered this about-face?
I get the answer before I have had a chance to ask my first question, as he launches into a diatribe, his eyes blazing with fury: “We are here in Switzerland, and this morning I read that this beautiful country refused to treat wounded Ukrainian soldiers, citing its traditional neutrality.
A few hours later, it appears that Switzerland will reconsider this prohibition, but the rage of Kissin includes all the democratic countries which do not shoulder the wheel in the war in Ukraine. He wholeheartedly approves of Britain’s support for Zelensky, but thinks Britain should push even harder militarily until Ukraine wins the war and Putin is defeated.
He then offers a detailed catalog of Putin’s crimes, ranging from Russia’s transformation into a totalitarian state to his preposterous claim that the Ukrainian government is undemocratic and his assertion that that country is a hotbed of Nazism. “Yet since the end of the Gorbachev period,” says Kissin, “Russia is literally teeming with fascist organizations and publications. And although the Russian criminal code states that incitement to ethnic, racial or religious hatred is punishable by law, no one has been punished. Putin’s propaganda, he adds, “involves lying in a particular way, best expressed in the Russian saying that the thief shouts ‘arrest the thief’ louder than anyone else”.
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Fans of Kissin tend to think of him as an inhabitant of the serene highlands of musical thought, and they may find this outburst of pugilism surprising, but during our three-hour conversation, I realize that this pugilism has always been there below the surface, fueled by all that Kissin has experienced during his 20 years of residence in the Soviet Union, and by all that he has observed of Russia since his departure. And if you look at the library on his website, you’ll see that he has long been a vigorous participant in European and Middle Eastern political debate.
“I’ve always hated giving interviews, he told me, but now I’m going to give some, in order to inform as many people as possible in the free world about what I observed in Russia. And I must say that although not all Russians are anti-Semitic, Russia is one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world. Kissin, along with many Russian friends, is definitely not Russophobic, and this comment should be taken in the same sense as it would be if applied to Victorian England, where Dickens’ Fagin was a racial stereotype. popular.
As a voracious reader of classical Russian and European literature, Kissin cites chapters and verses to prove his point. Among the authors of the 20th century, he retains the assertion of Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Gift that most Russians were prejudiced against Jews. He quotes the statement of the Russian writer Yuri Nagibin: “If there is one characteristic that unifies the Russian population – I do not use the word ‘nation’, because a nation without democracy is just a scoundrel – it is anti-Semitism. He invokes the massacre of several thousand Jews near the Russian village of Zmievka, identified and sent to their deaths by their Russian neighbors. And he points to the oft-forgotten fact that the Elders of Zion’s Protocols of Jew Hating – which strongly influenced Hitler – were not concocted in Germany, but in Russia.
So when did Kissin first realize his own stigma? “I knew him from my earliest childhood. I constantly felt it on my own skin when I was a child. I spoke about it briefly in my autobiography, but I must now give some details. I remember children my age – and even younger – bullying me. I remember some of them found a big stick and said they would use it to make a Jewish kebab out of me. I remember a man in the house where I lived, an old grandfather, who said to me, “You bloody Jew, get away from here. My older sister had the same experience. All the Russian Jews I know have had this experience. And it was not state anti-Semitism. It came from ordinary people.
So, what nationality does he feel? Witty and cultured, he laughs at the triviality of the question. “Since early childhood, we Jews were always told that we were not Russian. Consider the Russian literature we all grew up with – you’ll find the word “yid” on almost every page. Was Turgenev’s handwriting tainted? “He wrote a short story called The yid, whose plot concerned an old Jewish spy who sold his beautiful daughter to Russian officers. And Dostoyevsky? Kissin shoots straight back. In one of the final scenes of Crime and Punishment, he says, where Svidrigailov commits suicide, he does so in the presence of a Jewish soldier. “And not only does Dostoyevsky mock the soldier’s way of speaking, his description of the man’s facial expression reflects the most contemptuous kind of stereotype: ‘His face wore that eternally sullen and sorry look that has been sourly imprinted on all the faces of the Jews. race without exception.”’ OK, QED.
When Kissin gives an answer to the question of nationality, it is oblique but emphatic: “I have always felt Jewish. Russian was my first language, and it is only in this respect that I am Russian.
However, in these cases, Kissin is as much about absolving as pointing an accusing finger. Tikhon Khrennikov, who served as secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers from 1948 to 1991, and who acted first as Stalin’s musical czar and later as government spokesman on musical tastes, is widely considered to have had a repressive Philistine influence on Russian musical life. In 1948 he spearheaded attacks on Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others, in Zhdanov’s purge of unacceptable musical styles. Western musicologists have demonized him.
Kissin was one of this man’s proteges, and he later came to know and love him as a friend. Although admitting that he was “no angel”, he considers him unfairly slandered. “You have to distinguish between words and deeds, especially if you occupy a high position in a totalitarian regime. Inevitably, some people had a bad relationship with him, but overall he was loved for his generosity in using his position to help people. I got nothing but kindness from him, and he especially helped Jewish composers during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign. For some of them, he was literally their saviour.
“It was in his house, not mine,” he continues, “that I, a teenager growing up in an assimilated Jewish family, first heard the words ‘Kol Nidrei’, the name of the prayer Jewish. Khrennikov’s wife used them to describe how a violinist played the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto. Khrennikov also knew these words, and what they meant. His wife was Jewish and in his family all Jewish holidays were celebrated. Then Kissin adds a decisive argument: “Unlike all other creative unions in the Soviet Union, not a single member of the composers’ union was killed in the purges. Khrennikov protected all of its members.
Politics obscured the fact that Khrennikov was also a composer. Kissin considers him a gifted melodist and has translated some of his song lyrics into Yiddish; he quotes composer Nino Rota saying that if Khrennikov had moved to Hollywood, he would have become a millionaire.
Last month, Kissin released a CD that represents the opening salvo of a campaign to rehabilitate Khrennikov’s musical reputation. The Salzburg Recital (DG) comprises a series of short pieces, chosen by Kissin, which Khrennikov composed when he was in his twenties. Playing dissonant and possessing a fairy charm, they could easily pass for Prokofievand they sit well with the sneaky Kissin Dodecaphonic Tango and the Gershwin Preludes that follow.
But Chopin – Kissin’s great love – takes up a large part of the new version, and here too the current war is imposed. Kissin points out that Chopin wrote his Scherzo in B minor in reaction to the Russian invasion of Warsaw in 1831, and his Polonaise in A flat minor to celebrate the victory of the Polish army over the Russians near Grochów. “These pieces are now very relevant, he says, and since the beginning of the war, I have always played the Polonaise in A flat in bis.
Then comes a revelation: “A lot of musicians hear lyrics while playing, and me too, but my lyrics are anti-Putin. Playing mozartRecently, I’ve heard the Russian words for “Down with Putin” over and over again. My Russian partners loved it.
The day before this interview, we had seen Kissin in a very unfamiliar form, performing with baritone Thomas Hampson in a semi-stage production of Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s two-handed film Hollywood. Address unknown. It is an epistolary drama between two German art dealers, Max (here played by Kissin) being in San Francisco, Martin transmitting to him news from Germany as it unfolds in the mid-thirties.
At first, Martin is all for the new Hitler broom, lambasting Max for his political pessimism, until eventually even Martin can’t deny the reality. The plot has striking parallels to the present, reflecting as it does the division of families and friendships: between those outside the country knowing the truth, while those inside are being brainwashed. . As Kissin observes, it is the mirror image of today’s Ukraine and Russia, and there is the possibility of a professional production of this piece in London soon.
Kissin has written short stories in the past, but now he’s engaged in writing a novel in Yiddish – a love story set in the 1970s Soviet Union, with the male character being a young Jewish pianist who studies with Emil Gilels (a Kissin hero, and also one of Kissin’s admirers).
But the project that currently occupies most of Kissin’s thoughts is a piano trio he is composing. “It’s about the war in Ukraine,” he says defiantly. “Several years ago some bars of music came to me, and I wrote them down on a piece of paper, which I kept in my wallet. Then I realized this was supposed to be the start of an article about the war. For violin, cello and piano, its second movement was to be premiered by Mischa Maisky and her son and daughter in Verbier, but they did not have time to learn it; the end is unfinished. Kissin tells me about his musical scenario: from an ominous introduction, through the bombardments (multiple glissandi) to the suffering of the people (which he illustrates by singing two Ukrainian Slavic folk songs) and finally to victory. “I feel like I have to do whatever I can,” he says, “whether that’s playing concerts for Ukraine or writing music for her.”
To put it mildly, this interview was a surprise. I had planned a decent discussion of mysteries of music, but instead we had Evgeny Kissin the Jewish Warrior.
This feature is published in the October 2022 issue of BBC Music Magazine.