CLASSICAL MUSIC / Freeing the spirit: Mikhail Rudy, the thinking public's pianist, gives Robert Cowan his thoughts on Zen and the art of listening

I dare not take a taxi, because I always end up fighting with the driver about the music on his radio]' Mikhail Rudy laughs, then winces at the suggestion that music might be anything less than a meaningful experience. 'If you listen to rubbish, you go to the concert with different ears. Music - wallpaper music - has become over-abundant everywhere.'

Rudy, now in his 41st year and with homes in London and Paris, left his native Russia in 1977 and has since earned himself a reputation as a musical perceptive, a pianistic thinker with deeply poetic sensibilities. Outwardly amenable and charming, he values Zen-like qualities such as stillness and concentration. His prize possession is an original example of Japanese calligraphy by the 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho, whose poetic diaries find a musical parallel in Rudy's own journey towards a profound interior. The haiku stands alone on a far wall, while next door Rudy might ponder a Brahms Intermezzo or one of Schumann's late, quizzical Gesange der Fruhe. Rudy's literary parallels are there, too: Rilke for Brahms (the Duino Elegies, in particular), and Holderlin for Schumann. In fact, his accumulated discography is full of mysterious, valedictory utterances - 'late' Liszt, Scriabin, Brahms, Schumann, pared confessions that challenge the imagination, touch the heart and will brook no distraction. Was this an intended route?

'It wasn't an intellectual decision,' Rudy confesses, 'but it does reflect a sort of personal affinity. These composers' earlier works had more - how shall I say? - certitude. But their later pieces are rich in suggestion and possibility. You play a single Brahms Intermezzo, and a whole world opens within it.' Schumann's late pieces are similarly haunting, yet the idea of his mental illness commonly conjures up images of decline and ill health. Not for Mikhail Rudy, who insists on posterity's 'profound misunderstanding' of 'late' Schumann.

''Gesange der Fruhe, Faust and the Requiem are wonderful but private works; they're both pure and, in a sense, nude, although their asymmetrical design sometimes disturbs people. Like Debussy's late Etudes, they reach out among strange new worlds and speak of a new freedom.' But are these subtle apparitions suitable for all tastes? Do they, like the haiku that Rudy so adores, reveal their secrets only to a dedicated elite?

Rudy outlines the principles for an 'art of listening'. 'Music is an original, almost religious experience,' he says, his hands tracing images of creativity as if out of the ether; 'it brings you into a unique and very different world, but . . .' - and here's the rub - '. . . but now, the record industry in particular insists on presenting the public with a 'product', and that's just what people have learnt to expect from us - a gleaming, well-oiled orchestra, a sort of musical Christian Dior, or Hilton International. Soloists are expected to perform like Olympic athletes: their control might be formidable, their technical facility astonishing - and yet I, as a listener, am completely frustrated, because nothing is being said. The character, the spirit, is often missing.'

He pits this chromium polish against the leaping spontaneity of earlier generations, then recalls a particular enthusiasm: the music - and recordings - of George Gershwin. 'I recently bought some records from Gershwin's own time,' he said, 'and they included a version of Porgy and Bess that the composer supervised himself. It was so strong, raw and imperfect, but also so alive - and direct. The expression was everything, the energy force amazing.'

And yet Rudy will have none of the compulsive 'harking back' that so many jaded commentators go in for nowadays. According to him, the performing circuit is still rich in interpretative talent; it's merely a question of nurturing a creative context for performance, and re-activating what he calls 'that vital energy'. He insists that there are many ways to awaken the musical imagination, 'but people who have experienced the true strength of art and music can't help but be disappointed by most modern concerts.'

Still, we have our leading lights: 'When Nikolaus Harnoncourt was busy investigating period performance practices, he always stressed the element of adventure in performance, claiming that at heart he was a 'Romantic musician'. Even Sviatoslav Richter is currently surprising audiences by programming the Gershwin Concerto.'

These and others like them are the perennial explorers, the real torch-bearers - never satisfied, smug or satiated. In more modern music, 'Gidon Kremer and the Kronos Quartet generate the same sort of energy. But the trouble is that too often we think on separate levels: we might listen to Kronos with some great jazz musician or modern composer, and we're in one world - then, we turn to Brahms or Beethoven symphonies, and that sense of adventure has gone. Suddenly our expectations change; we enter a museum.'

Recordings are partly to blame. 'They encourage standardisation,' argues Rudy, 'which has its positive side - but which fails when pianists try to mimic the specific individuality of, say, a Gould or a Horowitz. It's an almost totalitarian trend; the ears of the audiences are 'prepared' by these recordings, and it's often very difficult to march forward to the sound of your own voice. Nowadays, people's tastes are nurtured by recordings.' Rudy claims to be a bad judge of his own records; he rarely listens to them, but believes that his latest efforts have 'greater freedom and a wider range of sensibilities'.

He would dearly love to programme more modern music, is constantly on the lookout for new scores, and harbours a particular fondness for the little-known music of Giacinto Scelsi. Here too there are problems of convention, of received attitude. 'You enter into the 'modern music' world, and you are often obliged to use a score in performance. This poses me no problems, but when the audience sees you put on your glasses and read, they assume you haven't learnt the piece properly] How well I understand Richter who, for the last 20 years or so, virtually always uses the printed music in recital. People don't realise that by limiting yourself to repertoire in your memory, you're limiting the scope of your programmes; and it's not a case of remembering the notes - it's the smaller marks and indications, subtleties that chamber players can happily read without criticism.'

Rudy is himself a keen chamber musician, with a Brahms CD series in the making (violin sonatas with Vladimir Spivakov are forthcoming from RCA and the works with clarinet are already available on EMI), a Schumann recital newly available (EMI) and some Schubert violin and piano works on the nearby horizon (again with Spivakov, for RCA). Melodiya have recorded a 'live' solo recital celebrating the 80th birthday of Rudy's teacher Jacob Flier ('The Liszt Sonata is totally different to my commercial recording of the work') and there are also some Schubert duo sonatas 'on ice'. Given time, Rudy would like to complete the novel that he has 'more or less written'. But he has so many musical ideas and plans that he has little use for pipedreams.

''My father spent his life dreaming and writing mathematical researches for no publisher. But all my life I have wanted to be someone who relates his work to the real world.'

Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm, 19 January: Brahms, Debussy, Ravel (box office 071-935 2141)

(Photograph omitted)

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

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
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

TV
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
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions