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Arnie of the ivories

Bodybuilding pianist and "Peter Pan genius" Tzimon Barto is back with a fabulous new recording of Ravel

Pianist Tzimon Barto. Photo © Malcolm Yawn, courtesy

How much raw muscle can classical music take? When the freshly bodybuilt pianist Tzimon Barto, began his career with Andre Rieu-Mähne in 1987, he was lampooned as a piano pretty boy. The hearts of the women's magazines opened to him immediately. The smiles of the critics froze all the more icily. Tzimon Barto's career could have been over before it got started. The only problem was that the Florida boy, born 1963 in Eustis, had real talent.

His grandmother first sat him down at the piano at the age of five. At 14, he began learning German (because of Wagner) and started composing operas. "I spent years directing Solti's Ring" he says laughing about himself as a sitting room star. When he went on to actually win the prestigious Gina Bachauer competition and a string of EMI CD's had lent him the sweet smell of virtuoso, Karajan asked him to record Brahms' second piano concerto. The Maestro died in the process. But not before he had opened the way for Barto's multifaceted career by arranging for him to make his debut at the Salzburger Festspiele. Only one thing could top it – a crashing fall.

The muscle man grew increasingly eccentric. After ten wobbly seconds conducting the orchestra of Hamburg's Staatsoper, the beefy beau was thrown out. EMI gave him the cold shoulder. And a crossover project with Paul McCartney was torpedoed by Linda's categorical refusal to work with leather-wearers. Barto buckled under his grievances. "I'm not as robust as I seem," he sighs, lolling in his armchair. And indeed it was his thin skin and nervous disposition that wore him down.

Photo: Malcolm Yawn

Last year, after a 14-year break, a weirdly incongruous album came out featuring the piano confections of the French Baroque master Jean-Philipp Rameau. With molluscular tenderness Barto caressed the musical fruit of his "Basket of Wild Strawberries" – the title of his album, which was celebrated by all in the business, and rightly so. A highly subjective, almost over-refined selection in impressionistic tonal glory.

Now he has followed this up with a similarly subtly crafted CD of Ravel's Pieces. They are miracles of waywardness, sensitivity and bubbling lyricism. The years of quiet concert playing, up and down the country from Walsrode to Landshut, have trained Barto and steeled him. His pianissimo is richer in colour, his touch more cultivated than many of his competitors. Seen in this light, Barto's comeback is a song of songs for the concert culture of the German provinces. It was here that Tzimon Barto learnt the art of survival.

His lips still seem frozen on the brink of a kiss. And his Schwarzenegger body seems grotesquely under-challenged at the piano. Brawny weightlifting fingers flit over the keyboard, massaging tenderly. Today Barto plays more quietly, with more dynamic excess and nuance than most. He is back in the spotlight with a bang, and back to his old self.

Photo: Eric Brissaud

Everything seems to have gone wrong in his career, he says. Even his name was a source of ridicule. His piano teacher, the legendary Adele Marcus, thought his real name, Johnny Smith, was too dull. So the "old dragon" (Barto's words) came up with the fantasy name of Tzimon and combined it with his second Christian name Barto. "It was a joke!" she later said.

After his alleged affair with Christoph Eschenbach, Barto married, started a family and a farm. By this time he considered it a mistake to focus solely on the piano. So he began writing poetry. He turned to newer, contemporary music and founded the Barto Prize for composition.

Barto defends his right to be crazy. His literary tome comprising 3,367 poems and prose segments (and thousands of pages) 'The Stelae' is almost completed. Now he just needs another few decades for the editing. A section of it was dramatised by Sven-Eric Bechtolf in 2005. Barto plans to have his gesamtkunstwerk engraved into slabs of granite on his ranch in Florida. Then he will bequeath it to the state.

The pianist's persona ranges from candified power pack to shrinking violet, yet he comes over as remarkably authentic. Barto reads Homer daily, is a fan of Doderer and Arno Schmidt and is learning (in addition to the eight languages he already masters) Mandarin and Persian. He still seems to be so talented it's frightening. A Peter Pan genius.

Photo: Malcolm Yawn

Musically, Barto follows the path of emotional extremes, as Ivo Pogorelich and his role model Vladimir Horowitz did before him. So it's no wonder that Barto has made a crowd-pulling art groupie of Irene Dische. The writer showed him off at concerts in her Berlin apartment – just as she once discovered the subjectivistic Anatol Ugorski. She also has literary plans for Barto.

Tzimon Barto is polar opposite of a grey piano professor, and no guardian of high culture. He doesn't make things easy for himself with his eccentric carryings-on. No one would allow him any musical slack. For this reason (and also because of his stage fright) he never plays a concert without sheet music.

He is a bizarre mixture of rancher, literature lover and big piano-playing girl's blouse. But the pastel miracle of his "Gaspard de la Nuit", the mirror effects of his "Jeux d'Eau" and his Ravellian "Miroirs" are without parallel. Of all the self-promoters in the piano world, he is the most subtly happy. Of all the comeback wonders in recent years, the greatest.


Tzimon Barto's recording of Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit, Miroirs, Jeux d"Eau

The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on April 12, 2007.

Kai Luehrs-Kaiser is a music and theatre critic for Die Welt, has worked as a dramaturg at the Berlin Schaubühne and is founding chairman of the Heimito von Doderer Society.

Translation: lp.

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