Pianist Andras Schiff Says Listen to Music’s Message

Andras Schiff’s modest Upper West Side apartment tells you very little--and in the not telling, maybe quite a lot--about its inhabitant. The furniture is plain, generic. There is a low-fi stereo, along with a few records. “Satanic Verses” sits alone on the coffee table. The main presence in the room is the grand piano.

It seems, perhaps, a good place to practice Bach without distraction, but it hardly seems like home to one of the leading pianists of his generation, even for one who has almost single-handedly wrested Bach from the iron grips of harpsichordists and made it respectable once more to play Baroque music on the piano.

(Not that Bach is all the young Hungarian plays: When he made his Los Angeles-area debut this week, it was with a curious mix of Hayden and Bartok).

What Schiff’s environment does convey, however, is a musician who does not readily exhibit his own personality, something this writer also discovered during a conversation in which Schiff discussed musical issues thoughtfully, but never loosened his guard or gave any evidence of his reputation for a lusty and wicked sense of humor.


Instead, in conversation Schiff proves studied, lucid and maybe just slightly impersonal, the very qualities for which his best-selling London recordings of Bach have been prized.

But that, too, is deceptive. Schiff says his way of playing Bach on the piano in an age that places such regard on authentic instruments is to respect the style behind the music.

“We should just listen to the interpretation and the message of the music and forget about the instrument,” he says.

For Schiff, it is all a question of translating--through varieties of touch and of phrasing--18th-Century notation into present-day terms. He complains about ignorant pianists who don’t understand that much of the character of Bach’s keyboard music lies in 18th-Century dances.


“If you are interested in the music,” he stresses, “then you must go behind the notes and find out as much as you can about the music, the style, the whole culture and history.”

This attitude of understanding music within a context, Schiff emphasizes, is what also informs all that he plays. In November, for instance, Schiff gave an attention-getting recital at Wigmore Hall in London, the kind of program that got cover story prominence from British music magazines and that attracted such notable pianists as Alfred Brendel.

For the first half, the pianist was joined, unusually, by soprano Lucy Shelton, for Gyorgy Kurtag’s 45-minute, arrestingly intense “Bornemisza” Concerto for soprano and piano, and Schiff followed that with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata.

So strenuous was the program that Schiff looked dazed by the end of it. When asked what possessed him to attempt such a punishing program, he says that Kurtag, a Hungarian composer he knows and greatly admires, had been listening to the Beethoven while composing “Bornemisza,” and both “fiendishly difficult pieces,” he says, “have the same element of struggle.