Christian Zacharias interview: 'Bach? Too boring! Chopin? So corny …'

On the eve of his Aldeburgh concerts, the pianist tells Michael Church why he loves to wind up the traditionalists and critics

Artistic fame can blossom in unexpected places. Who would have predicted that the English comedian Norman Wisdom would find his most loyal audience in hermetically sealed Communist Albania?

Christian Zacharias may be in demand all over Europe, but his British fans are not Londoners: they are in Aldeburgh, and above all in Scotland's East Neuk, where he is about to give his annual series of concerts. This German pianist and conductor has always imposed his own vision on over-familiar works, and has perennially provoked dissent, so I decide to track him down. And I find him virtually under my nose, living in a terrace house in the artists' quarter of Spitalfields.

He's a large, bear-like man with a pleasantly shambolic manner, but the open-plan architectural conversion he inhabits – with its exquisitely displayed paintings and sculptures – suggests an aesthete's insistence on serenely uncluttered space. Asked to tell his story, he skates pretty fast over its pianistically unremarkable beginnings. He had talent but was no prodigy, and always regarded the piano as an impossibly daunting instrument: "I observed that in any generation there was just one internationally important pianist in any given country, or at most two. So logically it was more likely that you'd become your country's prime minister, than you would its top pianist."

But he did well in competitions, so decided to give it a go until he was 25: "If it worked by then, I would stick at it. But if I was still sitting by the phone waiting for concerts, I would give up and do something else." Winning the prestigious Ravel competition at 25, he made it in the nick of time. Having hedged his bets by also training as a conductor, he theoretically had another avenue open, but his sternly self-critical philosophy forbade him to go down it.

Conducting, he says, is about authority, and he didn't feel his was accepted until he was in his forties. "To stand in front of 60 top professionals and tell them what to do is a huge challenge. I admire schoolteachers for the same reason – I couldn't face a class of tough 16-year-olds. A very young conductor is an unnatural thing, it's weird, yet everyone is looking for the new Rattle." Can he be thinking of Gustavo Dudamel? He grins diplomatically. "What they should be looking for demands years of experience. And too much limelight is dangerous – you need to be able to say, 'No, leave me in peace for half a year'. Some people have the character to do that, but not many."

Oddly enough, this was precisely the advice recently given to the young Venezuelan by Rattle himself.

Discussion of repertoire brings another toe-stubbing moment. Chopin was once part of Zacharias's concert armoury, but he says that if he were to perform the first book of Chopin's études now – he's 63 – their "obscene" technical demands would ruin his hands for good. But he has also developed a deeper aversion to this otherwise universally loved composer. "When I came to play Schubert, Chopin faded away, because they don't work together." Why? "Just do a simple test. Sing their pieces – sing a Chopin waltz or nocturne, then sing a Schubert melody. You will find Chopin sounds incredibly corny and kitschy, but the Schubert is from the heart – he knows what a sung line means. Chopin does have heart, but of a different sort."

When we get to Bach, the toe-stubbing becomes sharper: "The predictability of his fugues bores me," and he mockingly sings a line of Bachian passage-work. "Why does it have to go on for 18 minutes? Why can't it stop after three?' Then he mocks the Handelian da capo tradition in a similar way: "Why do these composers go on so?" He regards Schubert's long piano sonatas and Bruckner's gigantic symphonies as "buildings which require every minute of their time, but in an English suite by Bach, my mind simply wanders elsewhere".

To prove his point, he once recorded a CD entitled Preludes without Fugues. "That was the Bach I really love – only preludes, and no fugues. There was an immediate uproar – how could I do that? 'If you play The Well-Tempered Clavier you have to start at A and finish with Z,' said the critics, who saw it as a provocation. But I think it's a provocation to sit down and play methodically through all the keys – it's insane, like taking a dictionary and reading it in front of an audience."

But this man doesn't give a toss what the critics think; he only reads reviews if friends send them to him. So presumably he didn't see my adverse one last year? "No, what did you say?" When I explain that in my view his account of one of Beethoven's most finely honed sonatas came across like a mere improvisation, his response is delight.

"But that is good! To make it sound like an improvisation is my dream. Not that it should be different each time – I like my improvisations to be organised – but if it keeps that sense of freedom then I am very happy. It's important not to become like those pianists who end up in a box getting more and more perfectionist ..." – he rolls himself into a tight ball – "After a while you start tuning your own piano, and eventually you have to have seven different pianos to realise your different effects. That's a total cul de sac which has nothing to do with art, or life, or anything."

Might he be gunning here for a certain Polish pianist? No names! "Art must be completely open, and there is no perfection when you are dealing with human beings. Perfection – forget it!" It's very much in this spirit that he acknowledges his applause, walking round in impatient little circles, flapping his hands and muttering to himself, as though not at all sure how well he's done.

One reason he likes playing in East Neuk is the intimacy he can generate in its quirky village venues. "Like being at home. I am not there to trigger a massive response. The reason no conductor wants to conduct Brahms's third symphony as a last piece in any programme is because it ends pianissimo, and they're afraid that no one will clap. Stupid! I love it if something ends, leaves you satisfied, and fades away. Thirty seconds of applause is nice, but 30 seconds of silence is better."

Finally, we go on a tour of the art surrounding us on all sides, from pop art by Allen Jones to Spitalfields hat-makers' moulds ("like Brancusis – the best art of the early 20th century!"), plus an uncategorisable melange of ethnic art dominated by a huge and mysterious Indian painting of a boar. This, he explains, is probably two centuries old, but if I look closely I will see the outlines of two seated Buddhas.

"I only noticed those after a year. Maybe it was originally a devotional painting which faded away over time, so this other guy came along and decided to use the canvas for a different purpose. I have not yet found an expert who can explain it to me." All this from a man who lives surrounded by Young British Artists: in fine art as in music, an enthusiastic provocateur.

Christian Zacharias plays at Aldeburgh 18 June. At East Neuk he will give a lecture-demonstration and three concerts 3-7 July: as a recitalist, a chamber player, and – with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – as a conductor.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea