Exclusive insights: Sir András Schiff in discussion with David Whelton
We were able to enjoy a total of eight wonderful and inspiring concerts at Klosters Music 2021. Both the versatile program and the outstanding performers were able to inspire the audience night after night with unique and expressive interpretations. Many of us will have lasting memories of the masterful and sensitive recital by Sir András Schiff on August 5. The artistic director of Klosters Music, David Whelton, conducted an extensive “fireside chat” with Sir András Schiff, which gave us a deeper insight into the work and life of the world-famous pianist.
For young pianists, Sir Andras Schiff’s performance of the D minor Concerto by JS Bach in the 1975 Leeds Piano Competition was a revelation. Here was a brilliant, young pianist who was not worried that a competition jury would only be impressed by a performance of one of the great romantic piano concertos. It showed an independence of spirit and clarity of thought that became the hallmarks of Sir Andras’s career. The rest as they say is history, Andras went on to make a huge impact on the musical world and formed a close relationship with audiences in London, especially at the Wigmore Hall, one of the finest halls for chamber music in the world. Andras felt at home in London, perhaps helped by the presence of George Malcolm, one of his mentors, an important figure in London’s musical life.
Following my appointment as Managing Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1987, I made it a priority to invite Sir Andras to work regularly with the Orchestra. Fortunately for me, Andras had a very high regard for Otto Klemperer, the musical father of the Philharmonia. He had in Terry Harrison an astute and sympathetic manager who helped me to convince Andras of the musical potential of this relationship. It also helped that I was able to bring the great German conductor Kurt Sanderling to the Philharmonia, a musician in the same tradition as Klemperer.
What followed more than lived up to our expectations and Sir Andras’s concerts were always amongst the highlights of the London season. Programme planning usually took place over leisurely lunches at the Bombay Palace and, over time, focussed on creating cyclical projects of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This approach allowed Andras to give free rein to his artistic ideas and gave him an opportunity to direct and conduct the orchestra. He was an inspiration to work with, his musical ideas were compelling and the concerts full of energy and joie de vivre. With Andras, the players felt they were making chamber music together and they looked forward keenly to each collaboration. He was also very good company and post- concert dinners with Yuko were punctuated by an immense repertoire of jokes!
In 1991 I had the honour of joining the Board of trustees of IMS Prussian Cove, a remarkable seminar founded by Andras’s friend and colleague, the great Hungarian violinist, Sandor Vegh. Here I was able to observe Andras pass on to the young generation of musicians the musical ideals which guide his life. As a European rooted it the highest cultural values, he also gives a perspective on the world which is invaluable to musicians as they find their own musical identity.
It is both a pleasure and privilege to invite Sir Andras to Klosters in my role as Artistic Director of Klosters Music. As in London, his concerts are an absolute highlight of the festival. The natural beauty of the Swiss Alps creates a unique ambience in which to experience the profound musicianship of one of the most important pianists of our time.
David Whelton, 28/05/2021
David Whelton: The last 18 months have been exceptionally difficult for the arts with most concert activity suspended. In addition to the concerts you have been able to give, would you be kind enough to tell us how you have spent your time?
Sir András Schiff: To be honest I haven’t enjoyed this time although it was good to be at home and rest. However I have lost my rhythm of life, the urge to work, to study, there was no energy, no targets, no motivation. A serious lack of adrenalyne and a danger of depression. As a very disciplined person I managed to get up every day and practice and study but it wasn’t easy. There were some good things too, for example I took up cooking. A small repertoire of mostly Hungarian dishes but immensely satisfying.
The Wigmore Hall has the perfect equipment and there the cameras and microphones don’t intrude, you don’t even notice them. Elsewhere it’s a mixed bag, there have been some horrible experiences. Music is not a visual art. You can close your eyes and just listen. In a concert there are some visual elements but these are not the most important ones. Most television and film people don’t understand the essence of music, they are desperate to make it ‘interesting’ for the viewer. Instead of trusting the music and musicians they constantly interfere with frequent camera changes and thus interrupting the natural flow. There are few exceptions but this is almost the rule. As for the future, I hope that we’ll gradually get back to concerts with live audiences, although this will be a long process, first with a limited number of listeners. If there is also streaming, simultaniously, then so much the better. To me it’s better to play in the Wigmore Hall or the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza and have it streamed to Australia or the USA than having to go there and go through the nightmare of travelling.
Live concerts are irreplaceable. It’s a communal experience. It’s a one and only time, tomorrow it’ll be different.
A number of musicians have experimented with different concert formats in order to maintain live music making during the last 18 months. Are there any that you felt should be continued, or should we revert to the conventional format as soon as possible?
We have to think about this carefully but urgently. It’ll be difficult to bring people back into the concert halls although it’s clear how much they have been missing the arts and music. But there is the element of fear.
The way we go to concerts and follow a set of rules and routines is very stiff and old-fashioned and this needs to be challenged if we want to appeal to younger people. Let me mention a few examples. We musicians have been told by the presenters to give a precise programme, one or two or more years in advance. So that the public should know exactly what we’ll be playing. Is this a good thing? How do I know what I’ll be feeling like playing on August 6 in 2025? And why does the audience need to know everything in advance? Can’t we have a little bit of imagination, some surprises, some flexibility? I would like to announce the works on the spot, from the stage. Maybe to give the names of the composers in advance but not more. This is certainly possible in a piano recital although not in opera or symphonic concerts. Also, today we cannot expect to have audiences that are as well-informed and educated as they used to be when there was plenty of amateur music-making at home. Therefore we can make the concert a learning experience, talking about the compositions, inviting the public to listen. Of course it has to be done with subtlety, less is more.
What has been your most memorable musical experience during the last 12 months? Can you let us which was the most memorable book you read during lockdown?
As You know my very favourite composer has always been J.S.Bach. He is unique in every way. If I had to name his greatest achievement it would have to be The Art of Fugue. And yet this is the ONE major work of his that I have not yet learned. So I have to thank Covid that now I have the time to do just that. It’ll take many years. The pandemic hopefully will not… And in literature I’m reading Proust, in four languages, French (my weakest), English, German and Hungarian. A life-changing experience.
Non lockdown. I remember you speaking at length about Otto Klemperer when you were with my old orchestra in London. Which other musicians have been, and/or continue to be significant for you.
Yes, Klemperer. The older I get the more I admire him. Even next to Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Toscanini. He has no vanity, the others have plenty. No ego whatsoever. He really serves the composer, the work. His Missa Solemnis, Fidelio, Jupiter symphony, I could go on and on. Other artists of the past that I adore are Casals, Adolph Busch, Joseph Szigeti. Of the pianists, Schnabel, Cortot, Edwin Fischer. Also Annie Fischer.
Your performances are renowned for their integrity as well the sheer joy of music making. Looking ahead, do you see the younger generation embracing these values?
These are not good times for the performing arts. There is no lack of talent and many pianists play extremely well,fast and loud,without mistakes. These are the measurable elements. But this is not even technique, it’s only efficiency, good mechanics. Thechnique is much more, elegance, fantasy, imagination, tone quality, millions of coulours. Integrity means the utmost respect to the composer, fidelity to the text, but you also have to know how to read a text. Like with the old scriptures. And then to bring it to life. Musical notation is not perfect, far from it. There are so many tiny details that are impossible to write down, it’s an art of timing. You can’t teach that.
And yes, the joy of music. It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them smile or laugh. Music is a great privilege and joy and it’s a pleasure to share it with others.