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)

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?