It must have been sometime in the mid-1980s that I first met Ferenc Rados. His former student András Schiff had invited him to come to the Open Chamber Music session at IMS Prussia Cove in Cornwall—in those days run by its founder, the great violinist and conductor Sándor Végh. (IMS was, and still is, quite a hotbed of Hungarians.) I was fascinated by Rados, of course; but it is to my shame that during the week we spent together (working on the Schubert E-flat Trio D. 929) I failed to realize that he was, in his very different way, every bit as great a musician as Végh. This only really came home to me several years later, when Rados and I taught together, also at Prussia Cove. I sat in on some of his lessons, and was mesmerized. What a mind! What profound, probing musicianship! And what a strange man…

One thing that struck me early on, as it strikes—with some force—everybody who listens to a Rados lesson, is that laughter is, as a rule, not a good sign. Whoever came up with the famous maxim, “Laughter is always a form of criticism,” must have had Rados in mind. His laughter is ordered in shades of madness, ranging from an only mildly manic chuckle to a positively lunatic guffaw, depending on the degree of perceived flaw in the student’s playing. A friend of mine once went to a Rados lesson to play with a violist who had decided to swap around the order of the last two of Schumann’s “Märchenbilder,” in order to end with the fast movement, a “more effective ending.” My friend—who already knew Rados well—said that he’d never seen or heard a laugh like that in his life!

Rados is not one to pay idle compliments. He himself told me that he has three degrees of criticism. The first, very bad: “Zis I do not understand.” Second, a little better: “I understand, but I don’t believe.” This, veering perilously close to praise: “I believe—but I don’t like it!” 

Hmmm… Perhaps my portrait so far risks sounding like that of a monster; but Rados is far from being that! I’m feeling a little uneasy writing this paragraph, I must admit. Rados is a fully paid-up member of the Groucho Marx “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member” Society. To pay him a compliment is an impossible task. Should he ever read this—God forbid—he would be disgusted by my sentimentality. (As it is, I experienced deep unease when I felt compelled to write to him after hearing the performances on his new album of Mozart Sonatas for four hands, recorded with Kirill Gerstein. I told him that I knew that this would probably mean that he would never speak to me again, but I just had to tell him that I loved the recording! Sure enough, I didn’t hear from him again for some time…) 

But I do have to say, even if it will land me in trouble, that Rados has a deeply kind heart. Although he would never admit it, he is full of empathy with anyone who is in trouble of any kind. If he can be harsh at times, it is because he is angry with himself and the world. This positive talk is all forbidden territory, however. I remember once accusing him of having reduced someone to tears in his class. Out came the laugh—until I explained to him that it was through the beauty of his playing. At that, his face fell, and he lost interest. Another time, he and his wife Rita (more about Rita later) came to a recital that Dénes Várjon and I gave in Budapest. The Radoses arrived backstage afterwards, Rita bubbly and enthusiastic; Rados with his characteristic bent gait, peering gloomily at the floor. Rita pointed at him: “He liked the Beethoven, he liked the Beethoven!” she announced. Pause. Then suddenly Rados raised his head, wreathed in smiles: “Ah—but the Schumann I didn’t like, he-he-he!” he countered delightedly. (That scene became one of my favourite ones to enact. I even made a video of it, which I sent to them—I think they enjoyed it.)

So it’s fair to say that Rados does rather revel in the gloomier aspects of life. But as I hope I’ve made clear, it’s partly (at least) an act—and he’s never malicious. As a teacher, his only true aim is to guide his students closer to the music, which he does to an extraordinary degree. He is possessed of an X-ray vision into the works he teaches.

For us normal musicians, close observation of the composer’s dynamic and other markings and the portrayal of certain emotions forms a large proportion of our teaching. Rados seems almost to see past those markings, past the obvious sentiments of the work in question, to the very skeleton, the inner shape and form, of each phrase. He imparts information, takes us far beneath the surface of any music, whether he knows the piece or not. His teaching is life-changing for those attuned to it. And music gives him extraordinary strength. We were once discussing some cultural disaster—I forget which one. 

“It’s the end of life,” I said. “Or the end of music, anyway.” 

“Same thing,” said Rados.

As for his own playing… When I first got to know Rados properly, he had not given a concert for many years—since the time I’d first met him, in fact. He would play in lessons, and people would swoon at the magic of every note; but he steadfastly refused to play even one piece all the way through. Then one year, my friend David Waterman decided to be brave. A nightly ritual of life at Prussia Cove is the reading of chamber music, in which all the young musicians take part, though normally not with the teachers (who tend to be in bed by then). One evening, David noticed that Rados was in the dining hall quite late. Fully expecting an immediate rebuff, he asked him if he might play through the Schumann quintet with David himself and some younger players. To his astonishment, Rados shrugged resignedly, and allowed himself to be led to the piano, where he played the quintet wonderfully—to everybody’s delight. I wasn’t there that night, but once I heard about it, I—in a fit of jealousy—decided to force Rados to play a Beethoven sonata with me the next time I saw him. Again to my amazement, he agreed; and that grew into something of a Prussia Cove ritual over the years, encompassing all the Beethoven Sonatas and variations; Bach’s Sonatas for gamba; Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, etc. It was always a wonderful experience. He would point out things I’d never seen in the music, always throwing a new light on whatever we were playing.

(In just one way, I can claim—and it is a proud boast—to have influenced Rados musically: Hungarians, despite their otherwise outstanding musical training, seem to be brought up with absolutely no awareness of the music of Gabriel Fauré. Rados—as well as that other Hungarian musical giant, his friend György Kurtág—was no exception. My constant rhapsodizing about Fauré both intrigued and irritated him, so he set about studying various pieces. What finally convinced him, though, was a performance of the string quartet, Fauré’s last—and perhaps most abstruse, though utterly sublime—work. “This, I understood,” announced Rados after hearing it. Typical of him to enter Fauré’s world through that piece, of all pieces!)

Still, there was for a long time no question of him playing in public. Then one year, we—Rita, Rados and I—were on our way back from one of the two annual courses at Prussia Cove, the so-called Open Chamber Music session, at which young musicians get to play chamber music with oldies such as myself. This is held every September, whereas the master classes take place in the spring. Rados had been coaching chamber groups, and we happened to be returning on the same train. Rados asked what pieces we other teachers were planning to play at our concert during the masterclass session the next spring. Surprised that he was at all interested (he tends to sit through concerts holding his head in his hands), I told him it wasn’t quite decided yet, but that it would include a piano quintet. He looked at me thoughtfully. 

“Maybe if it is Brahms, you would like to risk a disaster,” he suggested. (Or words very much to that effect.) 

It gradually dawned on me—although I had to confirm his meaning with Rita—that he was suggesting himself! I could hardly believe it. After all, he hadn’t played anything in public for well over ten years at that point. And yet, it came to pass. Actually, the Brahms group was a bit of an unusual mixture, and Rados didn’t enjoy the concert. (In fact, he was in a foul mood for days, until an encounter with someone who irritated him beyond words put the smile back on his face; as I may have intimated, Rados is a man of unusual reactions.) But he had at least broken the ice. The following year I insisted that he and I perform a Beethoven sonata together, which went well; and he actually volunteered also to play Schumann’s “Nachtstücke” for solo piano in the same concert – a haunting performance. 

From there, he started to play fairly regularly, both chamber music and solo, with frequently revelatory results. He also played, with huge success, a Mozart Concerto with the Manchester Camerata under the baton of another great musician who had been much influenced by Rados from an early age, Gábor Takács-Nagy. (The only time that particular engagement wavered was when someone from the marketing department, perhaps not quite having done their homework, sent him an email: “Dear Ferenc: It is time to start publicizing your forthcoming concert. Please send me the address of your Facebook page, and your Twitter handle.” Rados sent it on to me in total confusion; this he really “did not understand.”) Many of his concerts became legends, the recordings widely circulated—particularly among the many younger Hungarians for whom Rados had been only a great teacher, never a performer. The expressive freedom of his playing, the beauty (how he hates that word!) of his touch, the extreme character with which he invests— or rather, which he brings out of—each phrase… There is nobody like him.

His concert-giving has become rarer again now. Kirill should receive a medal for having survived the trials through which he was put before the present wonderful recording could come to fruition. In fact, it was to be one of the last performances Rados gave; not long thereafter, he announced that he would no longer play. But I am delighted to say that he has indeed played again recently, with the violinist Barnabás Kelemen in Budapest. Kurtág—at 95—attended the concert, and told me that it was outstanding, particularly Rados’s vision of Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata, Op. 96.

So Rados continues to offer his unique and invaluable insights to the world of music. As I’ve probably made rather abundantly clear, he’s not always the easiest of characters. Nor is he as difficult as he’d like to be—or as negative. Despite undoubtedly dark episodes, I’d say that he gets a lot out of life. And the main reason for that is the shining presence of his wife Rita, a former student of his and now a similarly inspirational teacher and coach. The two of them often work together, sometimes adopting a good-cop, bad-cop approach: she as full of joy and enthusiasm as he pretends to be full of gloom and sarcasm. They are totally devoted to each other; what a wonderful couple. And—bad luck, Mr. Rados!—those of us who know them both and have worked with them are totally devoted to them too. ¶

This profile originally appeared in the CD booklet for Kirill Gerstein and Ferenc Rado’s new recording of Mozart’s Sonatas for Piano Four Hands KV 521 and KV 497 on myrios classics.

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