Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
A threat! There was a piano at home, which my grandmother had acquired hoping that I’d take piano lessons (she was the daughter of a great musician, a clarinettist friend of Puccini who had toured with Toscanini). Instead, I went fishing, hiking, and played football. Sometime after Grandma’s passing, my mother threatened to sell the piano: the idea didn’t seem right, and I promised I would learn how to play it. I was 12 years old. At 15 I gave my first recital, and I have never looked back.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Shura Cherkassky, no doubt about it. I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music when a friend took me to hear Shura’s 80th birthday recital at the Royal Festival Hall. It was a revelation: his sound was ravishing in all the registers, and he had a capacity for bending the musical phrases in such a way that even the simplest melodies assumed an aura of majestic beauty. I had had no idea that a piano could sound like that, and I became an instant fan of this great Russian maestro. Later, we became friends: I’d go to his apartment at The White House Hotel and spend entire afternoons alternating at his piano, practising. Shura was the one person who changed my rapport with music and piano playing: before him, I thought and behaved as a student; after I met him, something clicked and an entire world of musical and interpretative possibilities opened up in front of me. I will be forever grateful to him.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Everything is “difficult”: understanding the logic (or lack thereof) of artistic directors, negotiating tempos of piano concertos with conductors, liaising with concert promoters, managers and record companies and making sure that they will not “steal” your creative ideas, mustering up the discipline to go practising even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes, to be in this business feels like one big difficulty. Yet, hardship is a part of life, or at least I have grown to consider it as such. Music can and does give you immense rewards. A huge part of the beauty in what we do lies in its quintessentially ephemeral nature: you play, people listen, and when a performance works it can be a magnificent experience. Yet, you could not bring home a piece of the Chopin’s Nocturne even if you wanted to… Music is like magic: it lives in the moment and in your memory, but you cannot catch it. How great is that?
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I have done many recordings, but I remember with particular fondness the only one I did with the late record producer Paul Myers, a great man I sorely miss: a programme of “encores” we did for Opera Etcetera. My last adventure, The Franciscan works of Franz Liszt for Solaire Records, has been a tremendous discovery. I was lucky enough to discover that such repertoire had not been explored before on record, and the opportunity to say something new about a composer such as Liszt is a rare privilege. The music is fantastic: it is the product of a musical genius who was trying to bridge the gap between theatre and spirituality, and living with it has been a rollercoaster of emotions, preoccupations, hours of practice and downright delight.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I am more at home in “big” repertoire; I need a lot of notes to keep me busy, and preferably much fugal writing. I am an addict of counterpoint, and often imagine it even where there’s no trace of it (Chopin’s ‘Berceuse’ is a good example of this). There are a few key elements I cannot renounce, irrespective of the repertoire I play: thanks to Shura, beauty of sound is an ever-present factor, as is a certain adventurousness in my interpretative choices. As I believe that spontaneity is fundamental in making music magical, I never plan, and prefer to take the ultimate decision in the spur of the moment. Genuine spontaneity, though, ought to be backed by solid knowledge, and I delve into a work and its composer as fully as I can. I always write my own programme notes: I see it as a way of further involving the audience in the creative process that accompanies every musical interpretation. It can be a very rewarding feeling to be on stage offering the result of months of research, practicing, pondering and hard work in a simple, direct way. But to answer your specific question, Ferruccio Busoni is an all time favorite (especially his ‘Fantasia Contrappuntistica’ and the Piano Concerto), next to Liszt, Franck, Malipiero, Scriabin, Rachmaninov… I still love all the “Greats”.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I try to exploit my pianistic qualities, and stay away from works that do not have some special significance for me. I think that the ultimate goal of a performer is communication, but to achieve it you have to have something to communicate! Adventure is the key word, for me. In addition to my regular concert schedule, I run my own piano festival in the summer, ‘Bianchi e Neri’ [white and black] Piano Festival Tuscany; within its framework I pay homage to the Florentine origins of the piano and its Tuscan legacy. I invite instrumentalists (Canadian violinist wife Debra Fast is a favourite, of course!), actors, artists, and together we take the audience to some pretty exotic musical places. Its success is both invigorating and prophetic: people want to be surprised!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I am in love with the historic opera houses of Italy. In Tuscany alone we have over two hundred such buildings, and they are magical places, a sort of holy temple for music. Some are tiny; I just played in Sant’Agata Feltria, at the Teatro Angelo Mariani: it dates from the 1600s, is entirely made of wood, can accommodate no more than 99 people and is a wonder to behold. To have the opportunity to play in such gems is fantastic. It’s like stepping back in time.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
As Richter used to say, my favorite piece is what I am performing at the moment! Right now that would be the Franciscan Liszt, Mozart’s d minor concerto, Scriabin’s Third Sonata and a few smaller pieces. There truly is no other way, for me: if I was not in love with my repertoire, I would play it badly and then there would be no point in coming to listen to my concerts… As per the listening, I make my choices by artist, not by piece. Cherkassky is “numero uno”, I love Wilhelm Kempff, Gyorgy Cziffra and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Carlo Maria Giulini remains my favorite conductor, and Gino Bechi my favorite singer.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are so many great musicians out there, it is really difficult to pick! For different reasons, though, I am very fond of two Italian colleagues: Francesco Libetta can do things most of us can only dream about with a piano (he is also a composer and conductor, and the sheer amount of talents at play is bewildering, in his case), and Luca Ciammarughi, a pianist and broadcaster who is based in Milan and plays Schubert like no-one else I have ever heard: with the simplicity of a child and the profundity of an old man. His Rameau isn’t bad, either! Mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli (no relation, I’m afraid) and violinist Uto Ughi are also performers I am willing to travel to hear live: when they walk on stage, you know that something extraordinary is about to happen. They always have something unique to say.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I have no doubts: Sunday, October 13th 1991, Shura Cherkassky’s 80th birthday recital at the Royal Festival Hall. He began by playing the Bach-Busoni ‘Chaconn’e and within six bars my life was changed forever. You cannot beat that, but I also remember a great ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with the Philharmonia orchestra under Giulini, and Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Muti in honor of mafia victims that brought tears to my eyes.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be yourself, always, and be prepared to welcome hardship and disappointment as your travelling companions; they are inevitable, but no-one warns you about this at the Conservatory. Determination, willingness to adapt and learn are essential (as they are in pretty much every other walk of life). Make sure you have something to say with your playing, and be happy. That’s the most important thing.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Wining and dining with my wife Debra and our friends after a great concert: mine, hers, or someone else’s.
What do you enjoy doing most?
We have a cabin high in the Tuscan mountains, and I love spending time up there, in the wilderness: mushroom picking, trout fishing, and cooking are essential elements in my life! I also have a great passion for maritime history, and make scale models of sailing ships. Some of my pieces are in museums and private collections, and making them is one of the best anti-stress therapies I know…
What is your present state of mind?
I am figuring out ways to be happy. Of course