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Soft pedaller

Boris Berezovsky isn't famous yet. But he soon should be. As soon as he stops sharing the limelight.
Evgeny Kissin's preternatural gifts - and hyperbolic fame - can lead people to think that he's the only pianist of note to emerge from Moscow's forcing-houses in recent years. He may be the most exotic bloom, but he's by no means alone. Yakov Kasman - runner-up at last month's Van Cliburn competition, where American chauvinism deprived him of the gold - is one of Kissin's coevals, and casts no less potent a spell.

Boris Berezovsky - who opens the Cheltenham Festival tomorrow - is a bosom pal of Kasman's, and yet another product of the fabled Gnessin school. A one-time winner of the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition, he is now a quiet family man living in Golder's Green; the London taxi he drives about in is an apt symbol of the nationality he is finally about to have enshrined in his passport. He has a fabulous keyboard technique, which he deploys with fastidious restraint (it comes as no surprise to learn that the late, great Shura Cherkassky was his hero and mentor). He is not yet famous, but he has golden professional repute: the anguished fax that arrives in the middle of our interview (does he know Brahms's Piano Quintet, and can he stand in for another pianist who has suddenly fallen ill? Yes, and yes) is nicely symptomatic.

Classmates at the Gnessin recall him as a reluctant swot who yearned to be out on the football field. His mother, who conducted a Russian Orthodox choir, oversaw his studies with the zeal of a prison wardress. His father was - still is - one of Moscow's leading teachers of music theory; it was thanks to his tuition that the 10-year-old Boris first made his mark. "I was emphatically not a child prodigy," he says, "but I was giving a concert, playing a piece by Shostakovich, and it was pointed out afterwards that, though I'd played it well, I'd played it in the wrong key. I hadn't noticed, because my father had trained me to transpose so fluently that the key made no difference." He describes the Gnessin itself as offering something more akin to circus training. "It meant that later I had no technical problems, that I was comfortable with any challenge I had to face."

Comfortable is a word he uses often. With his crazy little laugh and his startlingly soft handshake, he's a comfortable sort of man: prowling his cluttered workroom, extracting kitsch from his Clavinova, demonstrating a point on his 100-year-old Steinway, under which nestles a stash of his daughter's fluffy toys. He has no trouble - feels "comfortable" - with pianistic nightmares like Liszt's Feux Follets and Chopin's second Etude, in which three digits play a fast legatissimo melody, while the other seven punch out chords. He gets a buzz out of the risk inherent in every performance, and he's a fast learner: Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto in three days is his record to date, although that did mean 16 hours per day. Aficionados may be interested to know that he has trouble with trills: he can't turn the notes into a satisfactorily even blur. For relaxation he plays tennis; he unwinds mentally with Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and PG Wodehouse. How English can you get?

Meeting him is pure pleasure, but writing up the meeting is not. This is partly thanks to his modest refusal to deliver "quotes": each thoughtful reply tails off into further thought. And it's partly because he seems more interested in others than he is in himself. He talks with curious detachment about his career - about feeling "a bit offended" at only getting fourth prize in the Leeds competition; and about being certain, from the initial moment when he was allocated the number 100, that he would win the Tchaikovsky.

The concerto with which he won that competition, and which he will play again tomorrow - Tchaikovsky's First - is his cue for the acknowledgement of a debt. "That is one of my favourite pieces, thanks to an English pianist. After the competition, I grew to hate it, so I listened to all the recordings I could lay my hands on, but they all made it boring. Then I found a very old recording by Solomon. It opened my eyes. It was so light, like ballet music, with its atmosphere of Christmas and winter. Ever since, I've played it entirely differently. I began by copying Solomon; gradually I've made it my own."

Asked about the pianistic rat-race, he replies with an accusation. "In England you're more interested in imported musicians than you are in your own, and this has always been true, ever since Handel. Your government should promote your artists, as the French government does. It sponsors opera, but it doesn't sponsor pianists. Have you heard Hamish Milne - one of the best Romantic transcription pianists in the world? Or John Bingham, who is also wonderful? Bingham's Wigmore Hall concert last year was the first he had given for five years. It's an absolute shame that such people should not be heard." He strides over to his CD shelves, pulls out the relevant ones, and presses them into my hand. "Take them home and listen to them!" When I do later, I'm duly impressed.

There are many things wrong with Russia, he adds - "but they do at least promote their musicians as national assets." Berezovsky plays once or twice a year in Russia, for the standard minimal fee. His last Moscow concert was sponsored by a certain Boris Berezovsky - "a very rich underworld figure, and no relation". In Russia these days, musicians sleep easier than sports stars: unless their name is Rostropovich, they're not worth robbing. "And Rostropovich has powerful friends."

As I leave, Berezovsky remembers one more pianist he wants to champion: his classmate Oleg Poliansky. "He's wonderful, one of the best." Three years ago Poliansky faced an impasse at the National Power Competition in London: he'd been misinformed about the repertoire, and had not prepared the requisite Chopin sonata. "I knew the work well, and for two hours I tried to persuade him to let me play it for him. The lighting in the hall was dim, we are as alike as twins, nobody would have noticed that it wasn't him playing. Unfortunately he was too scared to do it." A pity; Oleg might well have won.

Now Berezovsky has another plan: a four-handed double act, working title: The Polsky Twins. These burly 28-year-olds have different strengths - Berezovsky the Romantic virtuoso, Poliansky the supreme classicist - but together they should be dynamite. The Russians are coming.

Boris Berezovsky plays Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 at the Cheltenham Festival, 7.30pm tomorrow (booking: 01242 227979). The concert will be broadcast by Radio 3 on Sunday at 1.15pm