Sunday, 8 August 2010

Lazy Sunday Afternoon – Mad Pianists

The evidence would suggest that piano virtuosity and wild eccentricity go hand-in-hand. This Sunday, here are three of the most troubled Greats (and this is not even to mention David Helfgott, made famous by the movie Shine, or Grigory Sokolov, who takes each piano apart before playing it and makes notes of his observations in a book).

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)
One of the 20th Century’s supreme virtuosos, the Russian played at Stalin’s funeral but preferred to give impromptu free concerts at tiny, remote towns. He claimed that his repertoire ran “to around eighty different programs, not counting chamber works” and at a wedding he once played the entire first act of Madame Butterfly from memory for a small group of guests. This prodigious memory was also a curse: a '”terrifying, nonselective memory”. He could recall the name of every person he ever met and if one escaped him he lost sleep over it. He was tormented by a droning melody in his head, which he eventually identified as a version of Rachmaninoff's ''Vocalise'', heard in childhood. At one troubled period in his life he insisted on having in his possession, at all times, a plastic pink lobster. More here.

Here is Richter playing Chopin's Etude no.4 extremely fast.

John Ogdon (1937-1989)
A sadder case, this. Regarded as perhaps the greatest British pianist as well as a prolific composer, Ogdon was a gentle giant. He won the prestigious Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962 with performances of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, as well as the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto which became his signature piece, but he also had a keen appetite for new, experimental music. He gave the first performance in 50 years of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s four hour epic, Opus Clavicembalisticum, and then offered to repeat the entire piece as an encore. But his life was blighted by chronic depression and mental illness (never fully diagnosed but probably schizophrenia) which led to three suicide attempts: one, gruesomely, by cutting his own throat. He spent long periods in Maudsley Hospital, London, undergoing lithium treatment and electroshock therapy, yet he died at the age of 52 of natural causes connected with undiagnosed diabetes. More here and here.

Here he plays Debussy's La Danse de Puck

Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982)
One of the most notoriously eccentric (to put it mildly) of all pianists, the Canadian called himself ‘The Last Puritan’ and once said that "Mozart was a bad composer who died too late rather than too early". When playing he usually accompanied himself with odd humming (to the immense irritation of many, especially sound engineers during recordings), made strange physical movements and at concerts always insisted on sitting, on a knackered old chair made by his father, precisely 14 inches above the floor. He was obsessive about the cold, wearing heavy clothes even in warm climates, which once led to him being arrested for vagrancy when sitting thus attired on a park bench in Florida. He hated touching other humans, generally refusing handshakes, and such was his hypochondria that when an employee of Steinway Hall tapped him on the back he wore a body cast for a month and threatened to sue the company. He died at the age of 50, after suffering a stroke. More here.

Here is a pretty sublime Goldburg Variations...


  1. These kind of virtuoso eccentricities are not restricted to pianists. As a child, I took accordian lessons and used to drive my parents to drink by singing "Moon River" loudly as I played. At 18, I abruptly refused to give any more live concerts for the relatives at family gatherings and, at 22, I resolved to play nothing but "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen" for the rest of my career. I developed both reactionary views and a debilitating neuroticism. I would harangue my friends for hours at a time on how the Moog synthesizer spelled the decline of the West and I gave it all up forever at 28 when I became convinced Weird Al Yankovic was making fun of me.

  2. Not really a fan of Richter, not his fault, other gods to be placated, If John Ogden had lived, well where do you stop, if Mozart or Henry Purcell had a full innings..Ogden could wring from a keyboard more stuff than any other, it may have deviated from the norm but who cares, the three disc set, Beethoven / Chopin / piano music, the last with his wife Brenda Lucas, is a classic, I think now off catalogue however, if you ask me nicely.
    Gould, can you honestly put up with the grunting, snorting and talking to himself.
    Going back to dying young for a moment it would seem to increase street cred exponentially, or does it, The sublime Brendel, tinkling his ivories well past retirement age, in the last year he played he was still the supreme interpreter of Schubert and Haydn, or is that a myth, some weeks ago I sat thirty feet away as Radu Lupu played Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann in a concert hall with some of the best acoustics in Europe, the Kölner Philharmonie, much lauded, his performance was tired, resigned, knackered. It just happens that his mate is a WDR grand poobah.

    All of the above uses Evgeny Kissin as the benchmark and in particular his Beethoven fifth piano concerto, akin to swimming through a vat of 25 year old Macallan with your mouth open.

    Now if only someone has a recording of Brendel playing Brahms second..

  3. Is this a post regarding mad men or piano virtuosity? Let's hear it for Dame Myra et al

  4. Yo Malty, it's hasn't had a spin for a few years, but I have a 20 year old Phillips of the great Alf, along with Abbado/BPO playing the Bflat. If you had to magic up the minds-eye ideal for this lyrical behemoth it would surely be these two. You wouldn't even have to ask me nicely.