Sir András Schiff in der Elbphilharmonie, 2022

Sir András Schiff – A Portrait

Master of joyous virtuosity: in the hands of the acclaimed pianist Sir András Schiff, the music seems to require no external reference points.

Text: Martin Meyer, 23. 11. 2023


Very few musicians of our time embody so resolutely and yet so effortlessly the art of interpretation as the Hungarian pianist András Schiff. When Schiff plays, the work itself plays – as György Kurtág realised early on. Long ago, the great composer accompanied Schiff in Budapest on the trails of a career that always developed organically, without ruptures or changes of course.

Nevertheless, this dialogue between the composer and his performer was anything but a matter of course. It requires careful study of the score, it requires the close, sometimes painstaking analysis of what defines the character and the style, the outward message and the inward affirmation. Schiff has confidently mastered this art for decades and continues to refine it – the result of long reflection and the expression of a compelling joy of playing. Schiff loves his instruments. After all, they are the medium through which the purely textual becomes sound. Another master pianist, Alfred Brendel, likened this transfer of music from idea to audible reality to the act of waking someone up with a kiss.

Sir András Schiff as a portrait artist

The pianist is coming to Hamburg several times around his 70th birthday in the 2023/24 season. He will also be accompanied by many of the young talents he supports.

András Schiff
András Schiff © Lukas Beck

The philanthropist :Sir András Schiff – A Portrait

Schiff – who was born in Budapest 70 years ago and emigrated to the west in 1979 – earned a reputation early on as a brilliantly nuanced Bach player. It must have been a special moment when he played his first recording of the »Goldberg Variations« for Glenn Gould in his own studio and received the blessing of a colleague whose monopoly over the work seemed impossible to break. Gould was more than happy, not least because the younger artist had confidence in his own skills and expressive powers.

Humanising the Bach cosmos – that’s one way of describing, in retrospect, this always eloquent, yet also moderately combinative style. With Schiff, everything is »there«, but without any hardening or aggressive edges. Quite the contrary: there is a kindness and humanity that reaches the heart of the listener even in the darkest moments of despair – as expressed in some preludes and fugues of »The Well-Tempered Klavier«. In this sense, communication is a kind of imparting.

Bach in the cosmos of form and language, between dance and epiphany, between speculation and exuberance, between the construction and its sublimation, those were the parameters for András Schiff’s early years of apprenticeship, which served as the ferment for all later explorations. He soon also incorporated the heroes of Viennese Classicism, Mozart and Haydn, who revealed their essence not only in their fundamental character, but also in each individual piece.

With Mozart, Schiff discovered the song, the cantilenas, the melodiousness, as well as, conversely, the hard-to-define sorrow that spreads its shadow over what only appears as idyllic. Haydn taught him speech, diction, the sharpening of voices, where many sonatas and string quartets stand out – and of course also humour. Haydn as an ingenious, thoroughly unorthodox humourist: this is something Brendel and Schiff share an appreciation of.

Sir András Schiff plays Mozart’s Sonata No 17 in B flat Major KV 570

The patient one

Schiff, for his part, is a physically expressive artist who blends humour, vitality and a belief in the beyond. The beyond makes itself felt where we are permitted to witness a kind of playfully moving trance that has left both will and ability completely behind. The music requires no external reference points. For example, when towards the end of the slow movement in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 a leisurely yet powerful waltz becomes manifest, one which almost all other interpreters ignore, we feel a compositional opening as if it had discovered itself in the moment.

»That Beethoven is suddenly dramatically new«

Beethoven of all people. Schiff let decades go by before he was ready to perform and record his 32 piano sonatas. There was a deep reverence and respect for this monument, and preparations took up a significant part of his life. The result was astonishing. Schiff wanders through and dissects this terrific corpus with the presence of a designer, to whom literally every note must reveal its weight and significance.

The knowledgeable listener receives the impression that Beethoven is suddenly dramatically new, that every sonata authenticates its own character, that touch and intonation, rhythm and tempo, and above all the phrasing and articulation, are devoted to the service of something special. That Schiff dared to drive the tempo in the opening movement of the »Hammerklavier« Sonata Op. 106 just as the composer had conceived but without being able to check the results with his own ears, caused a sensation in New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Zürich Tonhalle and elsewhere in 2004.

Sir András Schiff: The Piano Sonatas by Beethoven (Vol.VII)

Listen now!

Sir András Schiff
Sir András Schiff Sir András Schiff © Nadia F. Romanini

The curios one

Curiosity is another of the pianist’s attributes. That now extends across an enormous repertoire not only of piano music, but also of chamber and orchestral music. Anything that has the look of a template or the air of empty repetition must be discarded; anything that facilitates intimate or surprising encounters with full commitment must be embraced and developed further.

Schiff the pianist also chooses his instruments with the greatest care. Each individual work demands the piano that does justice to its sensitivities, its vulnerabilities. Some of Beethoven’s sonatas, in particular the orchestrally extroverted, call for a Steinway, while those with the softer, more lyrical keys are better suited to a Bechstein or Bösendorfer. It was no coincidence that Schiff had a Bechstein that had, in the past, often been played by Wilhelm Backhaus returned to its original condition, resulting in fascinating perspectives in sound and atmosphere.

There is also a collection of historic instruments – enough to keep an expert tuner more than busy. In addition to the fortepiano, Schiff has also recently been using a clavichord, an instrument that is a kindred spirit to Bach’s Inventions and Symphonias, as evidenced by a beautiful recording on the ECM label.


»Schiff’s new Bach recordings combine artistic authenticity and historic truth: a great pianist plays Bach’s music on the instrument for which it was conceived.«

BR Klassik

The intellectual

Naturalness is not an integral quality of the keyboard instrument. Each mechanism forms a source of resistance, presenting enormous challenges for the interpretation. Schiff’s achievement in performing Bach’s »Goldberg Variations« on the modern concert grand without once touching the right pedal marked a pinnacle of intellectual and manual freedom. The pianist soon applied this seemingly weightless balancing act to the master’s entire oeuvre, from which other composers then also benefitted, depending on the objective and meaning.

A memorable evening with the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich saw him perform the »Goldberg Variations« with Beethoven’s sister work, the »Diabelli Variations«. But that’s not all. In the first part of the marathon, Schiff explained the secrets and hidden joints of these cycles to the breathlessly attentive audience, with a nod to the wit and humour, making the subsequent performance – which was to my recollection without an interval – twice as powerful. Schiff’s friendly smile disguised the fact that a pianist had to draw on herculean powers here.

The cherub’s outward appearance is, of course, misleading – he seems to have resolved all possible conflicts and left them behind him. Schiff also doffs his hat to Beethoven the man when he, like the composer, suddenly slips into a seemingly quick-tempered mode. It’s no laughing matter. So much the better, you think to yourself: here is a musician thoroughly rooted in the earth, here is a man who can fly into a rage when something irks him.

Sir András Schiff giving a lecture concert in Berlin on Bach’s »Goldberg Variations«

Besides the ones mentioned, we should not forget other composers Schiff has turned his hand to over the years. Max Reger with his unwieldy yet fascinating »Variations on a Theme by Bach«, Robert Schumann, whose »Ghost Variations« form an integral part of the concert repertoire, Schubert of course, and in the past also Chopin and Scarlatti, and these days increasingly Johannes Brahms with his two piano concertos and the wonderful intermezzi.

András Schiff’s versatility has an impressive track record. Who remembers that the young pianist, when he was sent by the functionaries of the Hungarian regime to Moscow for the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974, performed Liszt’s concert étude »La Leggierezza« and an étude tableau by Rachmaninov? Tempi passati, and yet... The motto was: make music, and from that a career emerged that has been just as astounding as it has been enduring. With time, new elements were added, such as Schiff’s energetic and sensitive conducting, and the joy of the impresario in presenting young talents.

Energy, concentration, memory, enthusiasm, and a merging with the works in a way that is rarely experienced or heard these days – that is what constitutes the magic of this artist. It should also be noted that he is a refreshingly forthcoming, funny and inspiring contemporary, in whose presence no star cult could form. Schiff is equally at ease discussing literature or film – he is a man of wide learning and strong opinions, but can also be open-minded and flexible when he is persuaded by, or at least interested in, the opposing opinion.

This article was published in Elbphilharmonie Magazine (Issue 1/24).
English Translation: Seiriol Dafydd

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