A rather wonderful interview with Sir András Schiff has just arrived in a press mailing from the Salzburg Festival and I thought you might enjoy it as much as I have. Here he is in the Mozart D minor Concerto, to start us off...
Salzburg Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler in Conversation
with Sir András Schiff
Helga Rabl-Stadler: I had the pleasure of hearing you once again during the 2016 Mozart Week. It was wonderful. I have a question regarding the details of that concert: wherein lies the challenge and the attraction in playing two concerts on three different pianos within 24 hours – programmes featuring Mendelssohn and Mozart on grand pianos by Graf and Walter and on a modern Bösendorfer? As you did on a CD in 2013, when you played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on a 1921 Bechstein grand and then on a pianoforte built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna around 1820.
András Schiff: The older I become, the more interested I am in the historical, old instruments. It is not true that today’s instruments are better – on the contrary. Being able to play Mozart’s Walter grand piano is a gift, a great privilege. It feels like returning to the source. However, one must pay close attention to the hall where one is performing. The Mozarteum is ideal for the purpose; at the Festspielhaus it would be unthinkable. Old instruments offer an enormously rewarding experience – afterwards, you play the same music on a modern grand piano quite differently, with the right tempi and true sensitivity.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Will you choose different pianos for your three concerts this summer at the Salzburg Festival? And if so, why? On August 1 you play with one of the world’s best string quartets, the Jerusalem Quartet. On August 3, you offer something very special indeed, performing with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, and on August 31 you appear in the finale of the 2016 Salzburg Festival, as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig and Herbert Blomstedt.
András Schiff: This time I will play a new Bösendorfer; I am an old friend of that company, and they have managed to develop an outstanding new model. Incidentally, it is the same instrument on which I played the Mozart and Mendelssohn piano concerti during the Mozart Week.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Last year you were celebrated in Salzburg for three concerts under the motto “Last Sonatas” (of the First Viennese School). This year you will perform with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre for the first time. How did this come about?
András Schiff: The Salzburg Marionette Theatre is wonderful, I have always admired it, for example its old production of Die Zauberflöte. Philipp Brunner and his parents are old friends of mine. As a small boy, he founded a marionette ensemble with his friends in Berlin, based on the Salzburg model. In Mondsee, where I was artistic director of the Music Days for ten years (1989-1998), I was able to invite this group for Debussy’s La Boîte a Joujoux. The children did a fantastic job. Many years later, Philipp became artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Thus, it was logical to develop this project further. The production of La Boîte is not brand-new; we have already performed it in New York, Vienna and elsewhere. However, Papillons by Robert Schumann is new. It is a highly unusual programme. Children are welcome, but it was developed with adults in mind.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are esteemed the world over as a pianist, song accompanist, festival director, teacher and conductor. In chamber music concerts you often lead ensembles from the keyboard as a conductor. Are you happy to have a conductor guide you when you are the soloist?
András Schiff: I do not imagine myself a conductor – but, if you please, neither was Mozart. When he performed his piano concerti, there was no conductor far and wide, but he led the ensemble from the keyboard, as a first among equals. His music does not tolerate anyone beating time. With my Cappella and a few other orchestras, I can communicate so intimately that we understand each other with few words, even without words. That gives me great joy. But of course I love working with such excellent maestri such as Bernard Haitink or Herbert Blomstedt. The only trouble is that there are very few like them.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: In 1982 you first performed at the Salzburg Festival – so far, you have given 52 concerts here, plus one at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. What does this Festival mean to you?
András Schiff: Salzburg and the Festival mean very much to me. 52 performances – I would never have guessed. That is a great honour, for which I am grateful. We lived here for a long time and have many good friends here. And, above all, Salzburg is the city of Mozart!
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You have directed and founded festivals yourself. What does a festival have to offer, compared to regular seasons?
András Schiff: It is already inherent in the word: a festival is a “fest”, a feast, and everything is different from everyday life. “It must be something wonderful.” It is not surprising that we have so many of them today. In a beautiful place, far from the stress and strife of daily life, people are better able to concentrate on art; they can absorb more. On the other hand, there are those festival lovers who attend several events every day, only to have forgotten in the evening what they saw or heard that same morning. Enjoyment is good, but within measure. Less is more.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are an explorer, someone who searches through the original sources and seeks new connections. Can you reveal where your next journey of discovery is headed?
András Schiff: As a musician, one has to travel a lot, and today, the good Lord knows that is no pleasure. I enjoy my time at home all the more – and all too rarely. Thus, my journeys of discovery are metaphorical ones. One delves very intensely into certain composers and their time. My next project will focus on Brahms, his late piano works.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are from Hungary, live in Italy, were knighted in Great Britain. Where do you feel at home? Was it a painful decision for you when you determined not to perform in Hungary anymore for political reasons?
András Schiff: In principle, I feel that I am a European, a Central European. I am interested in other cultures, but my home is the Occident. What is happening with Hungary is very sad, and very little will change in the foreseeable future. However, I am optimistic that I will be able to return within my lifetime.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Are you still in touch with György Kurtág, your teacher who turns 90 this year, and what did you learn from him?
András Schiff: Only by phone. To me, Kurtág is the greatest, most important living composer. As a teacher, he was enormously important to me; I came to him at a very young age, when I was 14. Even the first piano lesson, on the three-part Invention in E major by Bach, was unforgettable. After about three hours, we had advanced no further than the third measure. There are few people who experience music so passionately and intensively as Kurtág. I also owe my passion for Schubert’s songs to him.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Your wife Yuuko Shiokawa is a violinist from Japan. Do you think it is easier to be married to an artist who understands the problems of an artist’s life?
András Schiff: Yes, certainly. It is almost impossible for an outsider to comprehend these problems.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are known for reading a lot. In which language, or languages, do you read? What is the last book you read?
András Schiff: Yes, I am a passionate reader. I read Hungarian, German, English, Italian, occasionally French. My last book was Erfolg (Success) by Lion Feuchtwanger, a wonderful satire about Munich and Bavaria, very timely!
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You perform from memory most of the time; is your memory better than everyone else’s? Doesn’t one feel more secure when one has the music in front of one?
András Schiff: My memory is pretty good, but surely not better than that of many others. Just think of Daniel Barenboim! It is congenital, so to speak. However, one does have to work hard at it. I find it much more difficult today to learn something by heart than I did thirty years ago, since my head is pretty full and one doesn’t want to forget the most important pieces either. For me, playing from memory is a liberation, allowing me to communicate better with the composer and the audience. After all, a piano recital is not a lecture. It is my choice, and there is no need for apology or shame.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Which are your favourite concert halls in the world, and why?
András Schiff: There are a few. The Musikverein, the Mozart Hall at Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Philharmonic in St. Petersburg, the Tonhalle in Zurich, and – last but not least – the Mozarteum in Salzburg.