Method & madness: The oddities of the virtuosi

What is it about elite pianists? Some are charmingly eccentric, others just insane. Michael Church looks at the oddities of the virtuosi

"It's like a horse before the race," said the great Vladimir Horowitz of his feelings before a recital. "You start to perspire, you feel already in you electricity. I am a general, my soldiers are the keys."

Marshalling their mountains of notes from memory, concert pianists need the skill of jugglers and the strength and stamina of athletes. Meanwhile, in their fusion of instinct and intellect, they must be supreme aesthetes. And they must do all this without safety nets: if their memory fails, or their fingers foul up, all they have is an unforgiving crowd. It takes an unusual person to put their life on the line like this. No wonder many pianists are oddballs; no wonder some go mad.

Such thoughts are prompted by the recent release of yet more posthumous discs on the BBC Legends label of those wonderfully eccentric Russians Shura Cherkassky and Sviatoslav Richter; and by two other massive projects: the four-CD box plus book from Naxos entitled A-Z of Pianists; and the 80-CD box of the original Sony-Columbia recordings by Glenn Gould, who was both a god of the keyboard and more than a little mad. And these are just the tip of the iceberg: we can now survey an entire century of pianism's brilliant weirdness, thanks to the voluminous evidence that record companies are now putting out.

Between eccentricity and madness lies a whole spectrum. When the Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen justifies his silent hand ballet over the keyboard with analogies to tennis and the Earth's curvature, we accept it as part of his fanciful virtuosity. When we learn that the Russian maestro Grigory Sokolov takes each piano apart before playing it, and notes his findings in a book, we see this as a facet of his infinitely subtle art. On the other hand, there are fine pianists who are close to the psychologically dangerous end of the spectrum, and one or two – no names, no writs – who have tragically dropped off the edge. It's safer to talk about the glorious dead.

When I interviewed Shura Cherkassky, then a sprightly octogenarian, in the hotel room he inhabited with a shockingly out-of-tune piano, I vainly tried to get him to talk about music; all he wanted to discuss was which Hawaiian shirt would make him most attractive to possible conquests. He had many pre-concert rituals, and could only perform comfortably if he had stepped on to the platform, right foot first. Yet his Chopin and Schumann had such panache that dozens of live recordings have been issued since his death.

I regret never having heard Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli live, but Testament's CD of his Royal Festival Hall concert in 1957, which includes a sound-check, almost fills the gap. He was a reclusive dandy who claimed to be an ace flyer, Ferrari-racer and piano-maker, and said he was descended from St Francis of Assisi; his cancellations far outnumbered his rare appearances. Yet what emerges on this CD is a surprise: he goes over and over phrases, tests every note for evenness of tone, and occasionally lets rip with that high-octane perfection that made him a legend – and to hell with his tenuous grip on reality.

Horowitz's technique left rivals speechless, but he was such a tangle of terrors – at one stage, they forced him into a 12-year "retirement" – that he only found sanity in his Eighties. And he shared his agoraphobia with other players. Adolf Henselt practised 10 hours a day and was regarded as the pianistic equal of Liszt, but so great was his fear of crowds that he only managed one concert a year; for concertos, he would lurk in the wings while the orchestra played, until the time came for his terrified dash to the keyboard. Sviatoslav Richter felt comfortable on the stage, but at times he was unable to go anywhere else without clutching his pink plastic lobster.

Some pianists based brilliant careers on seeming mad, when they weren't, the most notable being the diminutive Viennese "pianissimist" Vladimir de Pachmann, aka "the Chopinzee", whose antics prompted George Bernard Shaw to write of his "pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin". Yet, if you listen to the Dal Segno CD of his piano-roll recordings made a century ago, you realise what a serious artist he was: as well as being a showman, he was a keyboard poet.

In other cases, of course, the madness is all too real. Everyone who saw the film Shine knows the story of the Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose youthful promise was cut short by psychotic illness. The case of the British pianist John Ogdon was even more tragic. This titanic figure claimed at 19 that he stood in line with Beethoven, Brahms and Busoni as a pianist, and, starting with his win at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, went on to prove that this was true. In middle age, he was felled by schizophrenia. It's now for critics and psychiatrists to debate how that illness might have related to his majestic way with Liszt and Rachmaninov, and to his championing of new music.

And so to Glenn Gould. Not only was he a hypochondriac, but he had his own special chair. It had been made for him by his father when he was small, and he carried it round the world – it got progressively more dilapidated – like a metaphorical bit of blue blanket. The posture in which he played, the chair so low he was almost on the floor, was another way of replicating his infant relationship with the instrument, as was his humming and clucking, stamping and swaying, and flailing when a hand was free.

Gould never risked a handshake; his physical phobias caused trouble at Steinway, where an employee once dared to pat him on the shoulder. Gould decided he'd been injured, spent the next month in a body cast, and sued Steinway for grievous bodily harm. After nine years of superstardom, he turned his back on the concert platform to devote himself to recording, and became a recluse; if he did venture out, he dressed like a tramp.

Sony's 80-CD box is a powerful reminder of why Gould had such an army of fans: he had a unique sound, and his playing could be as fleet and joyous as the wind, while always preserving needle-sharp clarity. One of these CDs contains a telling interview. As Gould parries, thrusts and provokes, you realise that though he lived on a different planet, his "madness" was that of a visionary who had the misfortune to be misunderstood.