Outside Edge: Nick Kimberley on a woman who loves the Kirov so much she washes their smalls

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The Independent Culture
LIKE the teacher she is, Sheila Banfield consults her notes to ensure the quotes she's providing me with are absolutely correct. Pushkin: 'How taxed our poor butlers would be if they had to serve the dinner guests according to precedence of brains rather than rank.' Tchaikovsky on Glinka: 'The acorn from which the oak of Russian music sprang.' And is there a teacher's regret in her voice when she says: 'All Russian children learn Pushkin by heart in school: they don't learn Shakespeare by heart here?'

Russophilia is not uncommon among the English, but Sheila Banfield could almost be a character from a John Le Carre novel. Like Connie in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, she conducts a very personal probe into the Russian soul, relishing each contradiction she finds. Her passion is fuelled not by the machinations of the Russian secret service but by the no less tortuous history of Russian music. Reverence fills her voice when she utters the names of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev; but she reserves her greatest admiration for the performers who bring this music to life.

Banfield, who lives in Blackheath, began as just a fan, attending every London concert of Russian music there was and getting a job tearing tickets at the Wigmore Hall to be close to the subject of her passion. Then in 1984 she made her first visit to St Petersburg and made the acquaintance of various musical figures. Valery Gergiev, the music director of the Kirov, was one, and she claims to be responsible for their first visit to Britain. Sergei Leiferkus, the Russian baritone, was another and she paid for his 1988 Wigmore Hall debut with her own money. 'If you give a concert in the Wigmore Hall, it really means something,' she says proudly.

Since that recital, Leiferkus has gone on to appear at most of the world's great opera houses. Banfield has tickets for all six performances of the Royal Opera House's new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, in which he takes the title role.

And she continues to put up visiting musicians in her house - feeding them, washing their socks and advising them (not always welcomely) on repertoire. She also supplies them with endless tapes of their own and others' performances.

Most importantly, she proselytises on their behalf. Leaving after the interview, I am the proud possessor of a tape of that 1988 Leiferkus Wigmore Hall recital. When I get back home, the phone rings and there she is again, promising more tapes. I feel as if I too may soon succumb to Russophilia.

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