Fresh off the plane from Aspen, his musical headquarters every summer, Misha Dichter greets visitors to his parents' home in Beverly Hills. Close at hand are his traveling companions from Colorado, Dichter's 12-year-old son, Alexis, plus the family dog.
There is excitement: Somehow, the dog has become soaking wet, and must be kept from entering the house. Dichter recruits Alexis (called Sascha) to contain the friendly and energetic animal. The white carpets are saved.
In the meantime, Dichter has been at the piano, practicing. While ringing the doorbell, his visitors heard the final passages of the first movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, which Dichter plays with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Claus Peter Flor Friday and Saturday nights in Hollywood Bowl. (Tonight and Thursday, he is scheduled to perform Beethoven's First and Fourth, and Second and Third, Concertos, respectively.)
Ten years ago, Dichter admitted to practicing eight to ten hours daily. Certainly, he has cut that down, hasn't he?
"Oh, no," the blue-eyed, square-jawed pianist replies, with enthusiasm, "When I've got new music to learn, I'm at it as much as 12 to 14 hours a day, now.
"This year, I've been learning the 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt, for recording this fall. They will be released during the Liszt centennial year (1986). It's been a full-time job getting them into the fingers. Nobody, but nobody, knows how difficult they are.
"After hearing me work on the First Rhapsody, Cipa (Dichter's wife and pianistic colleague) said, 'Now we know why no one plays it--it's impossible! ' "
In a career that was launched when he took the silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1966, Dichter has by his own choice moved gradually into the repertories of his predilections: Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt.
But not precipitously. The steady rise of his career, Dichter acknowledges, with some pride, "goes back 20 years, to the time when I returned from Moscow, and Rosina Lhevinne said, 'All right, so you've won a prize. It doesn't mean much. Continue your studies, and accept only five engagements for next season.'
"So that's what I did.
"You see, Lhevinne knew what I needed. And she had been through it all with Van Cliburn, eight years earlier."
The bottom line, Dichter claims, is that "every year the playing gets better. That's what all this discipline, all this hard work, is about." And in the process, he indicates, the musician grows.
At Aspen, where the Dichters, who have now been married 17 years (they met as students at the Juilliard School in New York), spend every summer, both Misha and Cipa have been busy with chamber music. In addition, the two pianists, who give 20 performances annually as a duo, played a New York recital of what Misha calls "a fascinating program," one containing only one standard work, plus novel but substantial pieces by Busoni, Liszt, Schumann, Copland and Infante.
"Years ago (growing up in Los Angeles), I used to hear on KFAC a Spanish piece which opened one of their piano programs. I finally found out what it was--one of Infante's Spanish dances."
About his relation to the Beethoven repertory, Dichter reveals that, by now, he has become intimate with "more than half" of the 32 piano sonatas, and that he has played all five piano concertos a number of times, though, he adds scrupulously, "I've only known the B-flat Concerto for five years." However, his Bowl marathon this week will be only the first time he has played all five works, "at one sitting, so to speak."
He thought, he says, it would be appropriate to play the cycle complete during this year in which he turns 40 (on Sept. 27).
"When I was 35, I played both Brahms concertos in a single evening. I found out they don't make a very interesting program, but at least I proved I could do it. It's something to look back on."
Now he looks forward to recording his newly conquered Hungarian Rhapsodies.
"Not every one of them is great music, but more of them than people suspect are great. I believe Liszt is the last of the great underrated composers. We tend to think of him as the composer of the Second Rhapsody and the E-flat Concerto. He's much, much more than that. The 16th, 17th and 18th Rhapsodies, for instance, are atonal, and look directly to our century. And the depths of some of his late pieces, like 'La Lugubre Gondola," mystify musicians even today.
"But I realize now, now that I've gone against the wall with all of the Rhapsodies, that this is music which must be played by someone in his prime, physically."