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Interview with András Schiff

Pianist András Schiff was in Geneva in December giving a charity concert for the security group that looks after all Geneva Jewish institutions. He found time to speak with ConcertoNet reviewer (and Board Member of the Geneva Liberal community Beit-Gil) Antoine Lévy-Leboyer.

A. Lévy-Leboyer, A. Schiff (© Antoine Lévy-Leboyer)

I understand you studied with György Kurtág. Is it with him that you discovered the music of Bach?
Partly yes. He was very big influence on me. The first piano lessons I received from Kurtág was at age 14. He made me work on the Three-Part Inventions.

When you play you have a Hungarian line. There is a line and rhythmic freedom. Is this characteristic of the way Hungarian musicians play?
Maybe, I am not conscious of that. It is my background and education.

You have played Schubert both on a modern piano and on the fortepiano. What did you get from this last experience?
The older I get, the more I am fascinated by old instruments. They have to be beautiful, a genuine original instrument and not a copy and in perfect conditions.
With Schubert, they are key for the singing tone. They also enable to manage the dynamics from pianissimo down, piano, pianissimo and triple quadruple many colours of soft, softer and softest which the modern piano can hardly produce.
The fortepiano has a sustaining pedal, a una corda pedal and also this unique moderator pedal which puts a thin piece of cloth textile between the hammer and the strings and this produces an exquisite soft sound which Schubert must have used when he writes a ppp.

I understand you have the piano of Furtwängler?
Yes I do have one of his pianos which I got by chance. It has a wonderful sound. It is an old-style piano from the 1870. I found it in Lübeck in Germany.

In the Opus 116 which you played, this is Brahms at his most Schubertian.
Yes, Brahms adored Schubert. He took part in this complete edition of Schubert works. There is a close connection. He settled in Vienna but even if he came from Hamburg he was very close from Schubert.

What do you think of the current practice of using baroque practices with different harmonics and different tempi?
Well, I welcome this. This is very refreshing, and we have to learn a lot from that.
Even in Bach’s music, the cembalo is an important instrument, but even more is the clavichord. It was Bach’s favourite instrument and I have now a couple of clavichords which I love to play on, but it has to be in a very small room.

You recorded Violin Sonatas by Busoni. Have you played some other Busoni pieces?
It depends. I am fascinated so this was a wonderful discovery. I also have played the Fantasia contrappuntistica. The solo piano works, maybe if I have the time. It is very demanding but wonderful music. Everybody plays the Bach transcriptions of Busoni, but his own compositions are much more important.

You have spoken about the situation in Hungary and said you do not want to return there.
For the time being yes but you never say never, and I hope I can come back.
To do that, many things have to change and not only the government, this is not enough. I would like that change comes in the basic way people in Hungary think which is much to ask for...
They need to look in the history and the past, and not change history, show remorse and regret. There is only one country which has done it and it is Germany. Hungary has not done that, neither have Austria and Poland. The whole holocaust was not only a German affair. It happened with the voluntary participation of a large part of the population. This has to be acknowledged and worked on so that it does not happen again.
In Hungary today, you experience things, you hear certain things in public if you happen to speak Hungarian, in the press, from politicians in the parliament from leading parties, which are totally inacceptable in France, in Germany. They get away with it because very few people speak Hungarian.

There are many classical musicians which are very vocal about politics and human rights. I interviewed Gabriela Montero from Venezuela, Igor Levit who has been very outspoken. Is there something with classical musicians and politics, values?
This is a personal choice. We cannot ask everybody to speak, it is only for yourself. I have no doubt that we have to speak up and not say that since we are musicians, we have nothing to do with politics. We have very much in common. They depends on society, just like the arts and we cannot simply look the other way. It is not only for classical musicians to do, it is for all artists, also for pop musicians who are sometimes very courageous, athletes as we have seen recently in the US. I think this is important. We are all part of the same family, the same society.

Could you tell us what made you give this charity concert for the Group that looks after the security for all the Geneva Jewish communities?
I do these things with great pleasure. I am pleased and proud to be a Jew but I am rather an ignorant Jew. I was brought up in a secular family so there is very little I know about religion. I am very interested and consider Jewishness more than religion. It is a state of mind, of being, of belonging. Whenever, I have a chance to help, I am very happy to do that. Even there, one has to be always with an open mind and not to take everything uncritically, not everything that happens in the state of Israel, It would be very irresponsible to accept everything unconditionally. However, it is very very important for the Jewish people to hold together. It is a very small group and we have been through a lot.

One last question, when will you be back in Geneva?
Very soon end of February. I will have a recital at Victoria Hall which is one of my favourite halls. It will be similar to the one I gave with late Brahms pieces combined with works by Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

[Interview with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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