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)

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