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
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders