Citations and Speeches


180th Congregation (2009)

Evgeny Igorevich KISSIN
Doctor of Letters honoris causa

Mr Evgeny Igorevich Kissin is a musical genius and certainly one of the greatest pianists of our time. When invited by a music critic to comment on the description of himself as a genius, Evgeny Kissin said `Genius is a very powerful word. I take it to mean the highest degree of talent ... Needless to say, I would never ascribe it to myself'. But very few enthusiasts would share such reticence. In fact, his name has long been synonymous with the word `genius', not just in the eyes of the public, but within the most exclusive circles of the classical music community.

Evgeny was born in Moscow on 10 October 1971. He describes himself as having been a very quiet baby, but such quietness came to an abrupt end when he was 11 months old. To his parents' delight, the baby's first `words' came in the form of the tune of a Bach fugue which his sister, also a talented pianist, has been practising. His parents discovered that baby Evgeny had, in fact, been listening, from the first day he was born, to the melodies his sister had been playing on the piano. From that time onwards, baby Kissin sang everything he heard: not just his sister's playing, but melodies he heard on the radio, the television and on gramophone records. When Evgeny was two years old and was just tall enough to reach the piano, he started playing, first with one finger, then with all his fingers. At the age of six, Kissin was sent to the Moscow Gnessin School of Music, a special school for gifted children, where he practised under the tutelage of Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who has remained his only teacher and mentor.

Evgeny is particularly acclaimed for his powerful and incomparable interpretations of works by keyboard masters Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, but his first public performance, at the age of seven, was to display his natural gift, not just as a pianist, but also as a composer, when he played his own compositions entitled `Morning Song', `New Year March', and `the Petrouchka', the last piece having nothing to do with Stravinsky whose works the young composer had not yet heard.

Evgeny was a child prodigy and soon became a national phenomenon. However, he was as yet little known internationally. If one single event in his career can be identified which propelled him to fame, it was his performance in 1984 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Dmitry Kitaenko at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. At the age of 12, Kissin played Chopin's Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2, which transformed him into an international phenomenon overnight. According to press reports, everyone at the concert that evening had the impression that Chopin's spirit was speaking through the cascades of notes flowing from the prodigy. He was no longer a young boy, but a unique personality. When he woke up the next morning, he had become a legend. Harold C Schonberg, a most influential music critic with the New York Times, wrote after the Moscow performance: `Suddenly I was in the presence of greatness ... The boy has everything'.

Evgeny made his debut in the western world in 1988, attracting huge audiences in London and Berlin, as well as in Tokyo. The great conductor Karajan, who invited Evgeny to perform the Tchaikovsky's piano concerto under his baton, was so entranced by the young man's playing that, it was said, at one point he forgot to cue in a flute. His extraordinary virtuosity and musicality, coupled with the deep, poetic quality of his interpretations, has dazzled and lifted the spirits of millions of people.

A performance at Carnegie Hall in New York is the hallmark of international success for every musician, and it was no exception for the prodigy from Russia. It was preceded by Kissin's first performance in America in 1990, at the Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic, where he received a standing ovation from a full house. Tickets for the Carnegie Hall concert were sold out on the opening night and it was reported that people were waiving $100 notes begging for tickets. One critic wrote: `You just knew from the first note that this was something you would talk about 50 years later'.

In 1997 Evgeny became the first ever soloist in the 103-year history of the Promenade Concerts performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, drawing their largest ever audience and stirring a public response unparalleled by any other piano recital in London in the last 150 years. The star quality of his playing held the rapt attention of nearly 6,000 enthusiasts for more than two-and-a-half hours. The audience at the Proms is known to be one of the most critical and well informed in the world, and he passed their scrutiny with flying colours. This was a truly historic moment both in Evgeny's career and in the history of piano recitals.

Evgeny's achievements have brought him accolades and a string of awards by way of recognition. In 1987, he received the Crystal Prize of the Osaka Symphony Hall for the best performance of the year. In 1991 he received the Musician of the Year Prize from the Chigiana Academy of Music in Sienna. In 1992, he was special guest at the 1992 Grammy Awards Ceremony and was named Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America in 1994. In 1997, he returned to Russia to receive the prestigious Triumph Award for his Outstanding Contribution to Russian Culture, becoming the youngest ever recipient of the award. He was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in 2005, and in 2006 was recognized with the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize - a prestigious award established to further the careers of young musicians.

Evgeny's performances have been recorded since he was 12 and today his discography comprises over 40 discs. He is in demand the world over and has appeared with countless great conductors, including Abbado, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Dohnanyi, Giulini, Maazel, Muti, Ozawa and Svetlanov.

To many, Evgeny's talents are somewhat unworldly. Indeed, one music critic in Russia said: `He is partly on earth and partly somewhere else'. That may be true when he is performing on stage where his inspirational playing evokes an unearthly or even ethereal quality. However, off-stage, he is a very different person. The artist's love for humanity can be traced back to his favourite literary masters: Shakespeare, Gogol, Goethe, Hesse, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. In 1999, in the midst of a very demanding professional schedule, Evgeny staged a benefit concert to raise funds for AIDS research and raised a substantial sum for that admirable cause. He explained his philosophy in an interview with Time magazine:

`True art gives birth to good as opposed to evil. Right now we are going through a very turbulent time. The goal of musicians is to make our art, which is humane, kind and international, prevail over all the other things that are evil'.

In the midst of all the adulation, Evgeny remains true to his personality and individualism. His search for perfection in interpreting the music of the great composers, and the irrepressible urge to inspire and create remain closest to his heart, just as when he first touched the piano at the age of two. Of his performances he said:

`While it is always a thrill to meet these great people of society, it is also a thrill to work on and perform great music. When that ceases the musician is finished. In our profession the feeling of awe is vital. It is something that cannot be faked'. 

We are in awe today of a man who can justly claim to be one of the greatest pianists of our epoch - precisely the same way twenty-five years ago in 1984, when his now legendary performance of Chopin's piano concertos graced the world with sparkling genius, poetic inspiration, and ultimately, a boundless love for human kind.

Mr Pro-Chancellor, it is my honour and privilege to present Mr Evgeny Igorevich Kissin for the award of Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa.

Citations written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator.