Countless musicians have found their lives upended by the Covid-19 pandemic and Sir András Schiff is no exception. The Hungarian-born pianist, 67, is a living legend, renowned for his interpretations of meaty repertoire from Bach to Bartók, often in giant cycles — the complete Bach Preludes and Fugues or all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas — in a career which takes him at speed all over the world. He too has been hard hit by the abrupt shut-down of an entire modus vivendi. Now he is wondering if such a model can ever be viable again.
“I lost around 100 concerts,” Schiff says, on Zoom from Basel, Switzerland, where he lives with his wife, the Japanese violinist Yuuko Shiokawa. “There are advantages: it’s good to be at home, to read long books that you always wanted to read and never had the time, and I can learn Bach’s The Art of Fugue at long last. But I lost sometimes the energy, the motivation and the adrenaline. I’ve had to force myself very hard. It’s a whole new rhythm.” He has managed to give some streamed concerts and a few with a limited, socially distanced audience. “It’s not the usual life and I just don’t see it ever coming back.”
In the several decades since I first met Schiff, he has changed remarkably little. He still speaks slowly and expressively, with a strong Hungarian accent and warm, laconic sense of humour. As for his playing, if you know his special sound, you can recognise it within seconds by its bright singing tone, clarity of texture and a certain cool-tempered wisdom unique to him, whatever instrument he chooses. (Please don’t fall into the trap of believing all pianists sound the same. They really don’t.)
He is scheduled to give two concerts at Wigmore Hall in London on May 28 and 30 — the plan is for a distanced audience plus live streaming. He will have to quarantine on arrival in the UK; as for the other direction, he holds British nationality, so travelling for work in Europe has become a major hassle post-Brexit, a double whammy with the pandemic’s problems.
“We have been spoiled by the last years,” Schiff reflects. “It used to be so easy.” He has two teaching posts in Germany, one in Berlin at the Barenboim-Said Academy, the other at the Kronberg Academy, and is applying for German citizenship: “The Germans have been very kind to me but the bureaucracy is incredible,” he says, reflecting that it is perhaps an ironic position for a Jewish musician to be in. He refuses, however, to have any dealings with the government of Viktor Orbán in his native Hungary.
Schiff’s Hungarian Jewish family history involves devastating Holocaust trauma. His parents both lost their first spouses in horrific circumstances. His father’s first wife and four-year-old son were murdered in Auschwitz. His mother’s first husband, undertaking forced labour, fell ill with typhus and died when the barracks holding the infected inmates was locked then torched by the Hungarian overseers. His mother narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz when the railway line was bombed. “My mother had no resentment, despite everything,” Schiff says. “She wouldn’t have hurt a fly.”
He talks more about all this in his recent book, Music Comes Out of Silence — a collection of his essays plus interviews with the Swiss writer Martin Meyer. Schiff’s cousin Agnes Kaposi’s book Yellow Star, Red Star also explores the family’s Hungarian Jewish journey in fierce detail.
András was an only child, growing up under “goulash communism” in Buda, where his father was a gynaecologist. He was 12 when he set his heart upon a life in music, and success in a talent competition on national TV brought him early attention.
Alongside the influence of his teachers at the Franz Liszt Academy, who included Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Rados and the composer György Kurtág, he absorbed some important input in the UK. His aunt had escaped Hungary during the 1956 Revolution and András came to Britain to stay with her family, briefly attending a school in Esher. Fellow pupils teased him for being from “Hungry”.
Crucially, though, he was asked to serve as page-turner at a private house-concert by the harpsichordist George Malcolm. “He was very pleased with my page-turning,” he recalls, with a twinkle, “and asked me to join him in playing a duet encore by [the Tudor composer] Thomas Tomkins. Here I was, 12 years old, in a beautiful music room where I could sit down with him to play this duet — it was one of the happiest moments.”
This became a great friendship, he says. “Every time I would play something to him, and then we would play duets, and he would work with me very severely. He told me not to play Bach with the pedal, but to play it with your hands and not with your feet. He never taught me the harpsichord, but the harpsichord was there, and so he showed me how to approach these old instruments. He was a great influence. It was a very, very lucky thing in my life.”
Schiff’s journey towards historical instruments has nevertheless been long and slightly chequered. “Beethoven’s Broadwood piano is in Budapest, because Liszt brought it there,” he says. “When I was still living in Hungary, I had to make a recording on it and it had not been restored yet. This was a very unhappy experience. At that time, I was also maybe too young and I thought, well, to hell with these old instruments, the new ones are much better!
“Then gradually I had the opportunity to play better and better instruments: for example, Mozart’s fortepiano in Salzburg. That was wonderful, a very moving occasion. I think that that changed me. It was in excellent condition, but to play Mozart’s own fortepiano in the room where he was probably born, that was strong.”
He uses a special piano in his two new Brahms recordings: first, the two piano concertos with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (without conductor), and secondly the intimate late piano pieces, recorded during lockdown.
“It’s a Blüthner made in 1859, an absolutely wonderful piano,” he says. “It completely changed my view of this music. It’s like a different world: a lovely, dark sound, very singing and not percussive. It’s interesting that, of all composers, Debussy had a Blüthner that he loved, at a time when he’d said, ‘I want a piano without hammers’. It still has parallel strings, bringing the sense of the different registers, top, middle and bottom, with distinct characters.” He has also recorded a third Schubert disc in an ongoing series with a Brodmann piano of 1820.
Fortunately, recordings have been able to continue during the various lockdowns. Further changes to musical life are emerging from the Covid-19 era — and they’re not all bad. Schiff particularly likes the rapid demise of the interval: increasingly, concerts are being given in one biggish chunk, rather than two smaller ones broken by 20 minutes for a dash to the loo, the bar, or both if you’re lucky.
“Even before Covid, I was a great champion of concerts without an interval because, let’s face it, the interval is a commercial entity,” he says. “The bar can still make its profit but afterwards instead. I think this solid block of, say, an hour and a quarter of music is a very good format. It will be a long time before we get back to full houses — I think that will be a nostalgic dream — so if we have a limited audience, we can do shorter programmes and repeat them two or three times to reach the capacity of the whole.”
The other breakthrough, he suggests, is that solo pianists should no longer be obliged to announce their exact recital programmes as long as two years in advance.
“I don’t know why promoters insist on that,” he says. “I think a lot about my programmes and enjoy it enormously, but I don’t want to give them in advance any more.
“Maybe I’d say what composer it is but sometimes not even that, because probably not many people will come to my concerts who have never heard me before and they know by now that they will not be hearing me play an evening of Liszt or Stockhausen.
“I would like to bring back an element of surprise and spontaneity, and to break down a couple of these barriers about the preconceived idea of what a piano recital is. Sometimes it is good if maybe the person who is playing announces the pieces and tells the audience something about the music. They’ll see that this performer is a real person in flesh and blood, not some strange being from another planet, and there is not a wall between us.”
We can probably expect Schiff’s Wigmore Hall concerts this month to be one programme of Bach and Beethoven and one of Mozart — but we can’t be sure and we won’t know until he begins. That’s fine. After this long musical drought, it will simply be wonderful to have him back.
Sir András Schiff performs at Wigmore Hall on May 28 and 30 – livestream at https://wigmore-hall.org.uk. His recording of the Brahms piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be released on ECM on June 4. Music Comes Out of Silence: A Memoir is published by Orion