1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Andras Schiff at 60

Marita Berg / gnbDecember 27, 2013

Showmanship is alien to him; Andras Schiff is regarded as a master of the soft touch - as a thinker among star pianists. Faithfulness to the score is his top priority, but he can make even well-known works sound fresh.

András Schiff at the piano in 1990 (c) picture-alliance/akg-images
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

He isn't a "modern man." Andras Schiff recently said as much himself, adding that he can't drive a car and that technology makes him nervous. Instead, he is committed to tradition and has expressed a love of making the great masterpieces of the past come back to life. For the Hungarian pianist, the works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert are favorites.

But when it came to Beethoven, the pianist long had his reservations, saying that it's difficult to make one's own mark in a Beethoven tradition defined by talents such as Schnabel, Kempff and Arrau.

"You just can't ignore this heritage. To do that would be foolish. To play Bach, Mozart, Schubert, to a certain extent you do that from birth. Beethoven on the other hand you have to learn. The 32 sonatas were like a suit for me; something I had to grow into," he told German daily "Tagesspiegel" in a 2005 interview.

It's a suit that now fits like a glove.

András Schiff in front of an audience in 2005 (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Bach sets the pace for Schiff's daysImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Spiritual cleansing with Bach

Andras Schiff was born in Budapest on December 21, 1953, and, at 14, began studying under György Kurtag at the Franz Liszt Music Academy before continuing his studies in London with harpsichordist George Malcolm. It was from Malcolm that he came to know and love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach - a love that has never left him.

Bach is for him the alpha and omega of music and sets the pace for the day: "Every day starts with an hour of Bach. It's a ritual. Preludes, suits, fugues; it doesn't matter what. Bach's music is complete, it's everything. It's like a spiritual cleansing."

This is especially true of the "Goldberg" Variations, a particular favorite of Schiff's. "When I was studying at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, pirate versions of Glenn Gould's first recordings were doing the rounds. We were all excited by it. I fell in love with it the first time I heard it. It's certainly one of the most difficult pieces. That's something I need to know but not the listener. The music shouldn't come across as an effort. It ultimately means: play the piano. What's often missing for me in classical concerts is a sense of playfulness."

András Schiff performing in 2012 (c) imago/United Archives
Schiff has been an outspoken critic of Hungary's politicsImage: imago/United Archives

Politics and art as inseparable

Andras Schiff may feel obliged to honor traditions, but he also lives in the here and now. Politics have become an important part of his public persona. In his view, artists, as sensitive individuals who comment on society, cannot be separated from political affairs.

Schiff himself has been outspoken about his grievances in his native Hungary and elsewhere. When Hungary took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2011, Schiff asked in the Washington Post if his homeland was really suitable to take on the role, writing, "Tolerance levels are extremely low. Racism, discrimination against the Roma, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, chauvinism and reactionary nationalism - these symptoms are deeply worrying. They evoke memories that we have hoped were long forgotten. Many people are scared."

Since issuing such statements, Schiff has been denounced as a traitor by some in Hungary and was even threatened with having his hands cut off. The star performer says he has no desire to go back home but still plays the music of a favorite fellow Hungarian, Bela Bartok.

András Schiff after a performance in 2005 (c) picture-alliance/akg-images
Schiff's latest achievement: tackling Beethoven's "Diabelli" VariationsImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

A birthday present courtesy of Beethoven

After the 2008 release of his complete recordings of Beethoven's sonatas, Schiff was asked if he thought he could go even further with the project. He responded with a grin that his dream would be recording the "Diabelli" Variations, Beethoven's last major works for piano. It's a dream he has since fulfilled and is arguably the best present to have given his fans for his 60th birthday.

On the new issue, he scores something of a double whammy playing both a Bechstein grand piano from 1921 and a Brodmann pianoforte from Beethoven's era, a bold experiment in sound which had never been attempted before.

"I'm never looking for a typical Schiff sound, but rather for a sound that fits the composer and the work I am playing. That's why I always choose an instrument based on these criteria," he said.