Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I encountered many pianists of note during my childhood in the Vienna of the early 1920s. Alfred Cortot used to play at my mother’s salons (she was a beautician), and my first memory is of being dandled on the left knee of Wilhelm Backhaus while he played the Hammerklavier. His party piece was to play the whole sonata with an infant on each knee. My elder sister sat on his right knee and kept falling off due to the violence of his sustain pedal technique. She broke a finger near the beginning of the Scherzo and he had to stop. Given such an upbringing it was inevitable that I would become a pianist.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
I could cite any number of musicians, but in all humility I believe the greatest influences on my playing have been myself and God.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
In my 30s and 40s I spent much time attempting to spread the seeds of Western classical music among non-Western cultures. The greatest challenge I set myself was to introduce the piano to Mongolia. It didn’t take, but what can you do?
Which recordings are you most proud of?
To my recollection I haven’t recorded anything since my youth. I’m with Celibidache on that one. I did record some Chopin and Brahms in student days, and had believed them lost until they resurfaced on the Concert Artist label some years ago. I was pleasantly surprised, and thought them worthy of comparison with Rubinstein. Some people suggested they actually were Rubinstein, which I thought rather ungracious.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
The Wiener Musikverein, the Wigmore Hall and the much lamented Haçienda in Manchester all rank highly, but you will agree that the greatest performances occur in one’s own mind.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
The pieces that give me most joy tend to be those that were written for or inspired by me. I can never hear John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes without feeling a pang of nostalgia for the short period I spent in California in the late 1930s as a piano tuner and repair man. Called out to Cage’s house, I was received by his wife, and immediately set to work tuning his baby grand. Suddenly I felt the man’s presence behind me (he had approached in absolute silence) and jumped up with a start, a shower of nuts and bolts flying out of my top pocket on to the strings of the piano, making a noise both percussive and melodic. He put his hand to his face, and his eyes seemed to say, ‘I wonder…’ It wasn’t until after my return to Europe that I learned of his ‘invention’ of the prepared piano. Initially I felt hurt not to be given the credit I deserved, but now I consider the corpus of work he left to be the greatest personal tribute imaginable.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Glenn Gould was a remarkable man. Like no other pianist his playing made me want to sing out with joy – quite literally! I had the privilege of sitting in on the sessions at the Columbia Records studios when he recorded the Goldberg Variations in 1955. Some people say they can hear me humming along in the background.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I once gave a recital to a cannibalistic tribe of Melanesia, near the Bismarck Sea. All was going well until the encore. I foolishly elected to play Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod, and the German music roused anti-colonial emotion in their breasts. I succeeded in escaping, but I believe they ate the piano. I certainly never saw it again.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be constantly aware of the world around you. It can teach you so much. As a boy I went to hear Messiaen play at the Sainte-Trinité. He was still a young man at this time. As he and I departed the church and were assailed by the bright Sunday morning I exclaimed, ‘Listen to that!’ ‘What?’ he asked. His ears, as yet, were untrained. ‘The birds! Listen to the birds, Ollie!’ (I always called him that.) His face assumed a distant expression and I regret that we lost contact after that. He was catching birds on a higher plane. Another piece of advice: never work with other musicians. It creates problems.
What are you working on at the moment?
Now that I am approaching my centenary I rarely play the piano. Perhaps a Bach prelude before breakfast, or one of the Ligeti etudes. But it gives me an inexpressible pleasure to listen to the great pianists of today – Perahia, Pollini, Sokolov, Clayderman – because it is fun for me to identify the ways in which their playing borrows from mine. A friend sent me Steven Osborne’s recording of Pictures at an Exhibition recently. I cannot imagine this Osborne has never heard me play.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Well, I do not expect to be here! But I entertain the thought that my pianism will be remembered when I am no longer alive. When he turned 100 Elliott Carter told me that it was the new 50. I look forward to reaching that milestone and receiving my telegram from the Queen, and as a naturalised British citizen I am of course eligible for honours from Her Majesty, which will all be gratefully accepted.