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Vladimir Ashkenazy's fingers and thumbs

Debunking the heroic mystic of the Russian maestro pianist.

One to One
BBC Radio 4

A short interview with the 75-year-old Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (who quit the USSR for England, then Iceland, in 1963) took place in a hotel room at Heathrow, after recording a Rachmaninoff trio that had required a full six months’ practice (4 December, 9.30am). Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, he explained to the interviewer Olivia O’Leary, were relatively easy to play (“no technical problems”) unlike Beethoven (“much worse”) and the impossible Rachmaninoff (“you name it. Unbelievable”).

O’Leary is an intriguing interviewer, giving an evocative, almost fan-girl introduction that implies she could talk for hours on the subject and then taking herself out of the picture almost entirely, saying so little that she you can actually hear her interlocutor in the act of sitting forward and filling the silence.

“My hands are not terribly good for pianoplaying,” confessed Ashkenazy, to which O’Leary rightly responded with a laugh. “No, it’s not a joke, it’s true,” he protested, vaguely aghast. “I have not big hands, not terribly small, not quite average, and my fingers since birth are built in such a way I can hardly play. I need to practice quite a lot – still – simply to play certain passages that for other players are easy to do.”

This did not sound like a currying-favourishly deliberate debunking of the heroic mystique of the Russian maestro. It sounded like the truth, and if you stop reading this and instead watch Ashkenazy attack Chopin’s Prelude No 24 on YouTube you can believe his claims.

He appears to be endlessly sucking a gobstopper in front of his teeth while playing as though distracting himself from a ruthless pain (and possibly a guinea-piggish odour rising from the Steinbeck mingling not entirely unpleasingly with the wood polish. He is definitely sniffing.) Had he not been a pianist, says Ashkenazy, he would have played football, or been a mathematician. “I don’t know,” he sighed towards the end, of some of his rivals. “Some people never understand anything they are playing – not a thing! – and are still terribly famous. I won’t give any names . . .”

He gives a whoop of merriment. None of it was unkindly meant. Or was it? O’Leary, exquisitely, didn’t push.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide