Arts: `I've started, so I'll finish': the true confessions of a serial recording star

Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Haydn... You name it, Jeno Jando's got it taped. Michael Church meets the world's busiest pianist - where else but in the recording studio?

Michael Church
Saturday 20 September 1997 00:02 BST

Jeno Jando, pronounced with two soft Js. Rings a bell? No? No list of the world's leading pianists - the 10 best, the twenty best, pick your number - ever does include the name, yet this 45-year-old Hungarian is without doubt the most prolific recording pianist alive, and by far the most widely sold.

But he's a "budget" pianist, churning out the goods which Naxos flogs for a fiver in Britain, 10 marks in Germany, 10 dollars in Australia - whatever the value of the lowest local note. Budget musicians carry no cachet: that's why you may not have heard of him. And if he's spreading himself around so much - across a repertoire ranging from Haydn and Beethoven via Grieg and Mussorgsky to Chopin, Schumann and Liszt - can he really be any good?

Listen at random and see. You may conclude that his late Beethoven doesn't hold a candle to Alfred Brendel's, and that Shura Cherkassky extracted a magic from Schumann's Kreisleriana that totally evades the heavier-handed Jando. You may prefer young Yevgeny Kissin's Haydn, or Liszt's spell as cast by the brilliant Boris Berezovsky. But listen on, and you realise something else. Nothing from Jando jars. It's all decent stuff, and sometimes more than that. His Schumann Carnaval turns its cartwheels with absolute sureness; his playing of Rachmaninov concertos has a clean, lyrical strength; his trademark is a muscular clarity, devoid of affectation. Perhaps promiscuity and promise are compatible after all.

How did Jando's enthronement as Naxos's resident virtuoso come about? "By accident," says the budget label's German founder, Klaus Heymann, speaking from his eyrie in Hong Kong. "Jeno Jando was just one of the Hungaroton artists we were distributing in the Pacific, and we told the company we needed someone to record the three most popular Beethoven sonatas for our first Naxos disc. And they recommended him. When it was done, I sat down with my wife [the Japanese violinist, and Naxos recording star, Takako Nishizaki] and listened, and we realised it was wonderful playing. So we faxed Hungaroton back, saying, `Could he do the lot?'"

Ten years and 100 CDs later, Jando still sounds bemused. "At the beginning I just recorded - I didn't even know which company it was for. It became continuous, first the complete Beethoven sonatas, then the complete Mozart concertos, then the Haydn sonatas, then the Bartok concertos, then Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. I'm now in the middle of the complete Schubert." He makes scaling these musical peaks sound as routine as a jog round the park, and he's talking in mid-recording session (well, where else would he be?).

The job in hand is Beethoven's Triple Concerto, which he's committing to disc with the aid of violinist Dong-Suk Kang and cellist Maria Kliegel, two more veterans from the Naxos stable. The conductor Bela Drahos and his orchestra, the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, exist to record for Naxos, and Budapest's Italian Institute is now used for little else. Musical production lines don't often come as neat.

The only sign of stress is the ubiquitous lighting-up of Marlboros, whenever a halt is called. Jando chain- smokes with the best of them, but I've seldom seen such a cool operator. No matter how often a re-take is demanded, the elegance of his playing never falters; there's no petulance, no outraged vanity, just a patient, quizzical smile, and every so often during pauses a bit of out-of-key clowning, to raise a laugh among the violins. He's the class joker, as well as the star.

But that's just the point: he isn't a star. Heymann had told me that Jando "didn't lend himself" to the sort of hype on which every pianist in the international circus willingly or unwillingly rides. There's no flamboyance in his approach to the keyboard: his only quirk is an unconscious clacking of his tongue against his teeth, which his producer neutralises by interposing an unlit cigarette. There's nothing flashy about his off- stage persona, nothing commercially exploitable. He simply lives to play. Two years ago he developed a tumour in the palm of his right hand; during the three weeks after the operation, he learnt and performed Ravel's Piano Concerto in D, which is played with the left hand only.

I'd been told he hates giving interviews, and that his last was three years ago. When prompted, he sketches out his trajectory with brisk modesty: musical parents, normal childhood, reluctance to practise ("merely" four or five hours a day when he was a teenager - we Westerners know nothing about hard work). "I count my career as starting when I won third prize in the Beethoven competition, when I was 18." He apologises for his English, which is slow and awkward.

He studied in Budapest in the shadow of Andras Schiff, and level-pegged with two other pianists - Zoltan Kocsis and Dezso Ranki - who both got off to smart careers while he was left on the starting-blocks. Why did they start faster than him? "The state chose them to represent Hungary abroad."

Why did it not choose him as well? "Perhaps because I was not from Budapest, but from the countryside."

This, I'm told later by his producer, is a characteristically diplomatic reply: the truth was that he didn't oil up to party politicians. When he did get started, it was as a recitalist in the Hungarian provinces. "It was pleasant, because the state supported musical life - though I don't want to imply that the Communist era was a good one."

Music in Hungary now is in a desperate plight, with the best teachers and students haemorrhaging to the West, but Jando remains optimistic: "Somehow our musical life still works. There are just too many pianists." He's still in regular touch with both Kocsis and Ranki, "but we're now so different that we are no longer a threat to each other".

He superstitiously always carries a score with him, but never consults it when playing: he has a formidable memory. For pleasure, he listens to the great departed - conductors like Klemperer and Furtwangler, pianists like Horowitz, Schnabel and Richter. And no, he isn't dismayed by comparisons: "I have my own approach to the masterworks." Is there anything he can't do technically? "Thanks be to God, apart from a relatively small stretch, I can do almost anything I want."

He wants to re-record some of the Beethoven sonatas - "I have more maturity now" - and Naxos will not stand in his way. He plays for a flat fee each time - no royalties - but that's all right by him. I leave him mulling over whether he will record some Liszt for a Japanese producer later in the day. He may, but then again he may not. It depends on the money. He isn't bothered either way.

He's shortly due to record Mozart's four-hand piano music with one of his conservatoire students, and he also records with his mezzo-soprano wife. "I'm so happy to have this amazing opportunity, to record everything that I love." Budget schmudget: this is a man in heaven.

Jeno Jando's bestsellers: Mozart Concertos Nos 12, 14 & 21 (Naxos 8.550202), Beethoven Sonatas Nos 14, 21 & 23 (8.550294). His latest release is Liszt's Transcendental Studies (8.553119)

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