NEW YORK — Evgeny Kissin sang his first tune before he spoke his first word, started tinkering on the piano at age 2 and became a sensation at 13 with a Chopin concert in his native Moscow.
Today, at 31, the gentleman with the lionlike mane is arguably the world's greatest pianist.
This month, he released an all-Brahms album, including the five-movement "F Minor Sonata," a huge work that composer Robert Schumann considered symphonic in scope. In performances, he demonstrates a masterful insight into the compositions, remaining in complete command of the music with thoughtful phrasing and thunderous outbursts.
"To understand music, we use both intellect and intuition. You must be intelligent enough, but you also need to have an actual feeling from music to be able to understand it," Kissin said in crisply enunciated, Russian-accented English during a recent interview.
"You try to understand what the composer wanted as much as you possibly can. … Of course as a child I used to rely on intuition only for the simple reason that I was only a child."
An infant, even. When Kissin was 11 months old, according to his parents, he sang the theme of Bach's A major fugue from the "Well-Tempered Clavier." His sister, who is 10 years older, was studying it at the time.
"From that," he said, "I started singing everything I would hear, from my sister, from the radio, from records.
"And then when I grew up tall enough to reach the keyboard from the floor, I was 2 years and 2 months then, by then I started playing. First with one finger, then with all the fingers. Again playing everything by ear."
Growing up in a cramped Moscow apartment, Kissin had a concert Bechstein grand piano in his bedroom, forcing his parents to remove furniture when it was time for his twice-a-day practices.
"I had to sleep almost underneath (the piano)," he said.
Although his mother was a piano teacher, he didn't study with her. When he was 6, he entered the Moscow Gnesin Special Music School, and studied there for 12 years with Anna Pavlovna Kantor.
She prepared him for his first performance of a piano concerto at age 10 — Mozart's D Minor (No. 20) and his big concert in 1986, when he triumphed in performances of Chopin's two concertos in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
Months before the Kissins emigrated from Russia in 1991, Kantor moved in with the family. She still lives with them in their New York and London apartments and offers advice to "Genya" as he travels around the world.
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On Kissin's new album, "Brahms," the composer's "F Minor Sonata" presented a special challenge.
"It's difficult in all its aspects, technically and musically," Kissin said. "I played it for I think two years before recording it. But it, as well as practically all of Brahms' music, was always close to my heart."
Kissin captures the nobleness of the first movement, the tenderness of the second, the spirit of the third, the funereal nostalgia of the fourth and the triumph of the final movement.
Also on the RCA album, recorded the CD on a Hamburg Steinway in late 2001, are the "Intermezzo in A Minor," "Capriccio in B Minor" and five Hungarian dances. Brahms composed the dances for two pianists.
The solo versions are exceptionally difficult, with 10 fingers doing the work of 20. And Kissin doesn't miss a note, overcoming what he calls their "truly transcendental difficulties."
"I always played them as encores. And so finally I recorded them," he said.
Kissin's performances often end in encores, to the delight of his loyal fans. At an April concert at Carnegie Hall, with part of the packed house seated in a semicircle around the piano, he played four encores after a stirring, athletic performance featuring Schubert's "Sonata in B-flat" (D. 960), Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert songs, the "Petrarch Sonnet No. 104" and "Mephisto Waltz No. 1."
In May, he performed the program in Paris, dedicating it to Kantor in honor of her 80th birthday.
He said he wouldn't consider playing "Happy Birthday." His present to his teacher: "Try to play better then, as always."
On the Net:
RCA records: http://www.rcaredseal-rcavictor.com/index.jsp
Fan site tour schedule: http://site.voila.fr/kissin/tour.html