Mark Latimer: Piano Virtuoso

PUBLISHED: 11:27 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:36 20 February 2013

Mark in a rare moment of meditation

Mark in a rare moment of meditation

Nigel Jarrett enjoys keeping up with fast-talking piano virtuoso Mark Latimer

Mark Latimer couldnt have helped being my sort of pianist even before Id motored through early winter frost to interview him at his home in the border country of Monmouthshire and Herefordshire, experiencing a remote but re-vitalising fastness that somehow reflects the position he occupies in British musical life.

As a performer who defies categorisation and one who wouldnt join a club even if you dragged him to the membership secretarys office, hed be justified in shrugging at the adjective British because he is a player of international calibre in both the jazz and, for want of a better description, classical fields. His upbringing and early musical education, as well as his professional career, began in London, but artistically and geographically hes Will o the Wisp.

He has been limbering up for his latest series of solo recitals, starting in the capital this month and culminating in an appearance at the Hong Kong International Festival on March 1, where his astonishing prowess will be called upon to play for the first time in China the
notoriously-elephantine Concerto for Solo Piano by the eccentric 19th-century French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, all 50 minutes of it and from memory. He first played it when he was 22.

I promised not to repeat again the known facts about Mark Latimer: teenage prodigy at the Royal College of Music; liege-man of the great John Ogdon; London College of Music professor at just 18 and a musician who in the past 10 years and probably well before that (he wouldnt divulge his age, even though I told him mine!) has been collecting superlatives like burrs. But there, Ive done it.

The Alkan work is the supreme example of his obsession with the virtually unplayable. Some music by Max Reger, which he has recorded for the Warner Classics label, and Balakirevs Islamey, eight minutes of finger-flying Eastern promise (seven minutes, 30 seconds with Latimers skates on) would reduce most pianists of stature to a spent squib.

As if that werent impressive enough, he is a great believer in the single, unedited take for recordings, which, in this sort of repertoire, is akin to treading a high wire above a pool of starving crocodiles. If a slip does occur, he always manages to cling on. His guiding philosophy in all this: I would rather hear a wrong note struck with the right intention than a right note struck with the wrong intention.

As a jazz pianist he is intuitive, spontaneous, exploratory and delicate of touch, and not a classical musician who mistakenly thinks he might be a competent jazzer in the right company, such as Nigel Kennedy and Yehudi Menuhin. I know of no-one like him in Britain. Tonight: jazz; next Saturday: Busoni and Liszt, not to mention his own compositions, improvisations and multi-media ventures. The Independent newspaper called him an untamed spirit, formidably gifted.

Ive waited this long to let my interviewee get a word in, on the grounds that, even when recovering from pneumonia, which he was when I met him, he is a loquacious rebel without a pause. But in mitigation of that rebelliousness and not yet A1, he still agreed to see me and answer my questions. A gentleman. A gentle man, despite his candour and his combative persona.

Question number one: Where did it all begin?
God, thats lost in the mists of time. My old man did have a collection of jazz 78s and he learnt the clarinet when he was young. I could never get the hang of the thing it just blew my hat off but I suppose it did give me some knowledge of notated music.

One of the students at my school in west London had won a scholarship to Trinity College, so my mother sent me to a biblically-old piano teacher called Doris Evans. After about a year, I guess I was making rapid progress and soon got into a master class with the Swiss pianist Albert Ferber, though at the time someone like Rachmaninov was just a name to me.

This early brush with greatness Ferber had once played for Rachmaninov was prescient, for Mark Latimer has collaborated with so many famous names that a roll-call reads like the credits at the end of the mother of all concert appearances. If you rattled them off hed wince and reach for one of his Dunhill cigarettes. So here are just a few to spare his blushes while he takes an elegant drag: Julian Lloyd Webber, Stan Getz, John Lill, Benny Carter, John Dankworth, Alfredo Campoli. And thats just in jazz and classical.

Look up his website and youll discover that he now also tweets and blogs. In fact, for someone who gushes at about 300 words a minute, blogging and tweeting might have been invented for him. Hes witty, opinionated, provocative and entertaining. Breathlessly so. He got six bars ahead of me at one point because my gaze had strayed to the bedroom, where Dill, one of the Latimer households two errant cats, was asleep on a futon, like some languorous lotus-eater. But I had to stay alert, because Id warned that a couple of cheeky questions were on the way.

He became very close to Ferber and, later, Ogdon. His hatred of false celebrity is expressed in his admiration for under-rated pianists such as Peter Katin, Ronald Smith and Abbey Simon. Ferbers encouragement led him as a callow teenager to perform, in public, piano concertos by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, and both the Brahms concertos at the Chichester Festival with the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult when the name Boult also meant nothing to him. The previous year hed collected ecstatic notices there for a performance of Francks Symphonic Variations, after realising only 24 hours earlier that hed have to play that and not the work he knew and had been expecting.

At this point I threw in my first cheeky question. When can we hear Mark Latimer, who has a repertoire of more than 75 piano concertos, playing them with the worlds leading orchestras? Never, or never again. This will sound like heresy, but I dont much like formal piano concertos. Ive never found conductors particularly easy to get on with. The jazz milieu, however, Ive always found more healthy and less like some inner sanctum, though audiences everywhere, for jazz and classical, can sometimes be annoying. Everything has become sanitised. No smoking in a jazz club seems really incongruous. Theres no smoke without ire!

But its not all wit and one-liners. As the spring recitals approach and as he gets older, he admits to being weighed down by the responsibility of what is being expected of him as both human individual and brilliant musician, of which the forthcoming concerts are a microcosm. He also agrees, somewhat surprisingly, that simply to master works such as the Alkan solo marathon and Sorabjis Opus Clavicembalisticum, another test of a pianists nerve, stamina and dexterity, can be their justification, aside from any aesthetic judgement. Music as simply a Herculean feat of performance? Perhaps only a musician could understand that.

I did become obsessed with the Alkan, but there is something obsessive about the music, he said. I think that ideally all music should have an improvisatory element. Its very difficult to quantify. Perhaps its just that it should always sound fresh. Theres nothing worse than going to a concert knowing that someone has played a piece of music a thousand times and all they will be doing is just playing it again.

One thing is certain; he wont be sitting around, wondering what to do next. Therell be plenty, including the addition of drum-and-bass below his Improvisations on a Theme of Chopin. Yes, you read it correctly the first time. This will upset the hell out of everyone, he said, as I displayed a barely-concealed shudder. But before they raise their hands in horror they should remember that Chopin himself utilised popular dance forms of his time.

This healthy disregard for prejudice and divisions in music, especially between classical and jazz, is the reason why everything he does is all of a piece, including the sometimes barbed things he has to say about music and other musicians. And music is all. Theres no extra-musical Mark Latimer. No hobbies or pastimes.

At Kings Place, London, on February 11 he plays works by Chopin for cello and piano with Daniel Veis; at the Wigmore Hall for a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime recital on February 15 he plays Improvisations on a Theme of Chopin , with works by Liszt, Berlinguer, Schumann and Chopin; and on March 1 (to mark the 200th anniversary of Chopins birth) at the Hong Kong concert hall he gives that China premiere of the Alkan, with Bachs Italian Concerto and Chopins Allegro de Concert. On April 7 at St Georges, Brandon Hill, Bristol, he repeats the China programme.

After the interview, I gave him a lift to town, but not before hed introduced me to Dill and his and his wifes other cat, Poppy, who was sitting sentinel on the piano stool in a music room that symbolised the origin of everything that we, mere listeners, owe to the fervid and life-enhancing creativity of its occupant thats Mark, not Poppy.

Hong Kong, prepare to hold your breath.

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