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.

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