Evgeny Kissin and the Berliner Philharmoniker

A lasting friendship

Debut 1988: Evgeny Kissin and Herbert von Karajan during a rehearsal break
(Photo: Gustav Zimmermann)

Evgeny Kissin is widely regarded as an exceptional pianist – thanks to playing that is powerful, expressive and profound. The Berliner Philharmoniker has been an important artistic partner since his career began. “When I play with the Berliner Philharmoniker,” Kissin said in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall, “I feel even more inspired.” We look back at the collaboration.

For Herbert von Karajan it was the last two concerts that he gave with the Philharmoniker in Berlin, while for Evgeny Kissin, it was his first: the pianist made his debut with the orchestra at the 1988 New Year’s Eve concerts playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto under the baton of the 80-year-old conductor. The native Russian was then just 17 years old and was considered a child prodigy. Following the concert, the press outdid each other in their praise: the critics were impressed by his technical ability, his musicality and the seriousness of his performance. And they all agreed that he was already a mature artist. Just a few months later, the Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan and Evgeny Kissin repeated the same programme at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

Brilliant New Year’s Eve concerts

In 1991, Evgeny Kissin made his second guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker, again participating in the orchestra’s New Year's Eve programme. But by then, Karajan had died, and a new chief conductor was at the helm: Claudio Abbado, who engaged him for the piano part of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra. “What especially added to the interpretive experience here was the powerfully expansive piano part with the 20-year-old Evgeny Kissin, who beguiled not only as a pianist of symphonic or virtuosic tonal quality, but also as a sensitive accompanist of instrumental and, at the end, of vocal groups,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. During the 1990s, Berlin audiences experienced Kissin several times with monumental concertos of the repertoire: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The performance of the latter commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Karlrobert Kreiten, a child prodigy like Kissin, who often played this concerto and was executed in 1943 because of his critical remarks against the National Socialist regime.

New Year's Eve Concert 2011: Evgeny Kissin plays Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto (excerpt)

After the turn of the millennium, it was more than ten years before the pianist returned to the Berliner Philharmoniker: in 2011, Sir Simon Rattle and the orchestra invited him to be the soloist in Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto at the New Year’s Eve concerts. Kissin impressed with his thoughtful, unpretentious interpretation of the work: “With his wonderful touch, he can sing, make it sparkle ...”, stated a review on rbb Kulturradio.

Another highlight of their collaboration in 2019 was the performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, a work to which the pianist had turned only recently. He played it under the baton of Mariss Jansons – just a few months before the conductor’s death.