Classical: Sight Readings: The pianist as method actor

What's Arcadi Volodos's secret? The Russian pianist only started playing when he was 16 yet he's now a consummate performer
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The Independent Culture
INTERVIEWING MUSICIANS is an odd, often pointless business, for with so abstract an art words are largely irrelevant. But those employed to spread the word still keep on trying, and their prey - though some play hard to get - still offer themselves for scrutiny. But not Arcadi Volodos.

Frogmarched to the interview-room by his desperate Sony producers, he has several times gone through the motions, but you could put what he's revealed on the back of an envelope. This 26-year-old Russian pianist hates both journalists and photographers, and makes it abundantly clear. If this makes him a challenge, he is also a fascinating enigma. How did this essentially rootless boy, who by his own admission didn't give a toss about the piano until he was 16, manage to turn himself into a consummate artist in a mere eight years?

Fancying that my chances might be better if I tracked him to his lair, I went to see him in Madrid. Though he'd agreed to the meeting, he did all he could to evade it, hiding behind a locked gate and closed shutters till I was on the point of giving up and going home. In the event our conversation - in French, at his request - threw up questions that were far more interesting than the one I'd come to sort out, and which he dismissed with a simple disclaimer.

There was no magic about his rapid transformation: "It was just a facility I had." I discovered that he's the musical equivalent of a method actor. If he plays a piece by Rachmaninov in public, he will first have played privately not only all the composer's piano repertoire, but his songs and symphonies as well. Asked whether he was always drawn to the 19th- century composers who are his staple fare, he replied that he was "interested in all music. If a piece doesn't please me, I ask myself what's wrong in my head. I don't say, `I don't like this music.' I say, `This music doesn't like me.'" So which music doesn't like him? "It's too early to say."

Which contemporary composers interest him? "For me, all music is contemporary. Bach is a highly contemporary composer, topical even." There was, he said, no such thing as the music of the past.

What, I asked, was his view of the atonality movement? "What Schoenberg did with harmony was a logical progression." But also a cul-de-sac? "They said the same of Scriabin, yet his music was no cul-de-sac. You can never predict what will emerge from a seeming dead end. Music is made by geniuses, not theorists. As Richter said, it's for playing and listening to, not for talking about."

In other words, go home. Did he see any value in critics? "My best concerts get bad reviews and my worst ones are praised. Critics are the only people capable of grasping a piece at a single hearing. For all other mortals the process requires repeated listening."

Did he ever suffer from nerves? "Of course. But not on my own account - on behalf of the music. When I play Bach, my concern is that he should emerge well, not me." Was he happier as a concerto-player or a recitalist? "The latter. Work with an orchestra is all in black and white, whereas I am interested in nuances of colour."

The force of that remark should be apparent when he makes his South Bank debut on Sunday night, playing pieces by the Russians he loves most. As the conversation wore on I found myself liking this oddly gauche young man, in whom social rebelliousness and musical reverence seemed to go hand in hand. While I waited for my taxi to arrive, he took me into his studio and serenaded me with snatches of Beethoven, Schubert and Scarlatti, plus a long jazz improvisation. Volodos dominated his instrument with ease, like a big bear at play. Back in London, I heard a magazine photographer's tale of woe. She too had gone to see him in Madrid, but when she'd asked him to pose at the keyboard he had refused, denying that there was a piano in the house.

THIS WEEK sees a new symptom of world music's unstoppable growth, in the form of a quarterly publication from Gramophone Publications, called Songlines. Discounting personal bias - I'm one of its reviewers - I have to say that its first issue promises well, but that it poses no threat to the monthly Folkroots which for 20 years has led the field. Folkroots is rough at the edges and blissfully crammed with information, and reviews 3,000 records a year. Songlines is more elegant, more modest in scope, and aimed at a less specialist readership.

"We don't want to create an exclusive club," says its editor, Simon Broughton. "We want to encourage people to explore, and steer them towards the best things on offer." He's keen to proclaim his independence from advertising pressures: a significant gesture, coming from the advertising-girt Gramophone stable. In this respect he'll get a run for his money from Folkroots, which takes sadistic pleasure in dispatching duds. Viz, of a disc entitled Medicine Woman II: "Serious New Age ordure ahoy!"

ONE HOT afternoon in 1997 I found myself at a strange Kensington tea- party where Larry Adler suddenly launched into "Rhapsody in Blue". He'd been sitting around looking frail, but he clearly responded to the elan of his accompanist - the much-maligned David Helfgott. Since their performance was well-nigh immaculate it ought, I suggested, to be preserved for posterity. When might we record them? Adler's reply was gloomy. "Forget it. I could be dead next week." So it's nice to find him celebrating his 85th birthday on stage tonight at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. On his latest record, The Genius of Larry Adler (Decca), he plays "Rhapsody in Blue" accompanied by a ghost in the form of the composer's own piano-roll recording. But Helfgott is very much with us. Come on, Larry, you've still got time to make that recording.