The Outspoken Pianist
Articulate and outspoken, pianist András Schiff takes a stand on issues ranging from the commercialization of classical music to the rise of right-wing nationalism in Austria.
Though he approaches the keyboard with restraint, preferring works in the classicist tradition over flashy Romantic showpieces, pianist András Schiff is anything but restrained about expressing his opinions or even taking a stand on political issues. But it is all part of his single-minded devotion to his art, which he sees as being more than a narrow-minded focus on technical perfection.
Born on Dec. 21, 1953, in Budapest, Hungary, Schiff began taking piano lessons at the age of five. By age 15, he was considered a prodigy and in 1968 won first prize in a youth talent competition organized by Hungarian television. From 1968 to 1975 he studied at the renowned Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. After ranking highly at the 1974 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow and the 1975 Leeds International Piano Competition in Great Britain he embarked on an ambitious international career, giving solo recitals in London, New York, Paris and Vienna and performing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others. He also appeared at the music festivals in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Aldeburgh and Tanglewood.
From the start of his career, Schiff impressed audiences and critics alike with his ability to memorize great amounts of repertoire, in particular both books of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." In addition to Bach, Schiff has concentrated on the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Ludwig van Beethoven.
A stint in America
A year after his 1978 debut at New York's Carnegie Hall, Schiff left Hungary for good. "I felt that if I stayed in Budapest, life would have been very easy for me, but I would not develop as I wanted to, either as an artist or as a person. I wanted to experience things that were not available there, and I knew that if I didn't leave then, at 25, it would probably be too late," he said in a 1983 interview.
Unable to qualify for U.S. citizenship due to his long absences while touring, Schiff accepted Austrian citizenship in 1987 and established homes in London and Salzburg. He also felt more at home in Europe: "New York was very interesting but very strange," he said in 1999. "I decided I couldn't live in America but had to live in Europe. I feel very European, though not very Hungarian."
Schiff began recording for the British Decca/London record label in 1980 with a series of Mozart sonatas, followed by Bach's "Goldberg Variations," "Well-Tempered Clavier," and partitas and inventions, among other works, along with recordings of concertos by Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Frederic Chopin. Other highlights of his 13-year association with Decca include lieder with tenor Peter Schreier and mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli (which won him three Grammy awards) as well as Mozart sonatas recorded with his wife, violinist Yuko Shiokawa, on the composer's own piano and violin.
No taste for modern music
Schiff has made no secret of his preference for the classicist tradition, grounded in the music of Bach. "I see every composer through my experiences with Bach," Schiff said in 1996. "All great music after Bach is related to Bach and polyphony and counterpoint and different voices." He also sees Chopin as belonging to this tradition, as he argued in a television program produced for the BBC in 1999. "I don't like the way that most people play Chopin. He has been mostly played by empty-headed romantic pianists, but he is really not like that."
Liszt, on the other hand, embodies all that Schiff dislikes about the Romantic style: "I have great trouble with certain works by Liszt where I find a total lack of self-control and economy. There are pianistic flourishes which are merely showing off." He has even gone so far as to call the composer "just vulgar."