Chamberfest: Sir András Schiff plays music that is close to his heart

Sir András Schiff will play Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Sir András Schiff, who has been knighted by the Queen and has made London, England, his home for many years, is considered one the great pianists of his era. He is a thoughtful interpreter of the classical repertoire for the piano and as well he is a focussed and talented conductor of ensembles of all sizes. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors and has been an outspoken critic of the current government of his birth nation Hungary because of its policies that pit the country’s majority against ethnic minorities there. That has led to threats of violence against him if he ever returns to Hungary to play. He answered emailed questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Let’s talk about the programme you are playing Monday night (Oct. 23) at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

A. The piano repertoire is so vast, so rich in masterpieces that 10 lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do justice to them. These works are all very close to my heart, otherwise I wouldn’t play them. The central thought is to present the shorter Brahms pieces and compliment them with other composers. A whole evening of Brahms is — at least for me — not a good idea. The colours and the moods are mostly dark, melancholic and full of resignation. Mendelssohn’s Fantasy is a wonderful piece, almost never played (don’t ask me why). It is in F-sharp minor and it leads into Beethoven’s F-sharp major sonata, one of his personal favourites. It’s like a declaration of love to Theresa von Brunswick. Brahms’ Op.76 happens to start with an Intermezzo in F-sharp minor so the tonality of F-sharp unites these pieces. The same way, the second half is dominated by the key of D-minor, the first and last pieces of Brahms Op.116 are in D-minor and so is Bach’s Sixth English Suite.

Q. At 63 you are my age so, of course, you are still a youngster. How has a lifetime in music changed your playing?

A. Not exactly a youngster. It’s a work in progress, there is no end to learning. Like with good wine, one’s understanding of great music gets better and deeper with age.

Q. Do you feel you find something new in pieces that you played in your early days? If so is there a piece of music that would exemplify that evolution and how would it do that?

A. Yes, always. For example the works of J.S. Bach that I’ve been playing now for over half a century. Having conducted the Saint Matthew Passion and the B-minor Mass has given me a new dimension, also with the keyboard music.

Q. Is there music you do not play and if so why not?

A. I only play music that I profoundly love. And if a composer is very dear to me I want to learn all of his works.

It is not obligatory to play — or to like — all composers. In my case these include Liszt, Rachmaninov,  Ravel and many others. These three are certainly important masters but I prefer to leave them to others who are passionate about them. Why should I play the Liszt sonata, badly?

Q. You are also a conductor. What qualities make for a good conductor. What should he or she do?

A. Conducting is a fascinating, mysterious art. Let’s not exaggerate the importance of the conductor; one speaks of Maestro X’s Mahler or Maestro Y’s Beethoven but they are not playing a single note. And yet, even if the best orchestra can play all the notes perfectly and together, it will not be a satisfactory performance. For that a kind of leadership is necessary. There is no democracy in music. A good conductor must know the score, understand the composition, what is important and less important. The choice of character, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, listening to the balances between the different instruments, controlling the intonation — these are all the conductor’s tasks. It is also very much a matter of culture and education. A conductor is also a teacher and a psychologist. He or she needs to communicate with the musicians who are a very diverse group of individuals. Most audiences today are not really listening to music, they are watching it. The way certain conductors deliver their choreography is probably very effective but it has very little to do with music. For good choreography we should rather go to the ballet. No, the most important work is done at the rehearsals and it is crucial how the conductor leads these. With authority and kindness, discipline and freedom. And last, but not least, one shouldn’t talk too much, orchestras don’t like it.

Q. You were born in Hungary in the height of the Cold War. The Eastern bloc was many things, but one thing it seemed to do well was instruct and prepare great musicians? What were your student days like?

A. My student days were marvellous. I think back of the time at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, of my fantastic teachers with gratitude and admiration.

Q. This concert will benefit the Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and Chamberfest Community Engagement and Education. Are these the kinds of causes that are close to your heart?

A. I’m not familiar with these particular activities but it is my goal to be a useful member of the human race.

Q. This leads to the kind of questions that seem to follow you these days. You have been outspoken on the far-right in your birth nation and in Europe generally? Why?

A. When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror I would not like to spit on it. It is my duty to react to the terrible things that are happening in the world.

Q. Some artists believe it is not their place to speak openly about politics and issues of human rights. You seem unafraid, even in the face of threats. Does being outspoken worry you?

A. No, it doesn’t.

Sir András Schiff
Chamberfest Concert Series
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: Monday Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.