Konzerthaus – Portraits – Sir András Schiff
Sir András Schiff

Sir András Schiff © www.lukasbeck.com (Ausschnitt)

Sir András Schiff

The intellectual foundations of his work are built on the Old and New Testaments of the piano repertoire. It was only at the age of 50 that he began to embark on cyclical performances of Bach and Beethoven, the fruition of an artistic career that he has always cultivated with care and circumspection. Few artists show such scruple towards and make such high moral demands of their own work as Sir András Schiff, the musical cosmopolitan from Budapest, who has been a fixed star in the firmament of the Wiener Konzerthaus for 35 years.

It was one of those rare moments. A young pianist from Hungary took the podium in the Mozart Hall to perform the Goldberg Variations. And it instantly became clear that here was a performer in a league of his own. At a time when debate was raging over the period instrument movement and historically informed performance practice, Schiff performed Bach's music on a Bösendorfer with an aplomb that immediately silenced any carping or criticism. As one critic wrote, paraphrasing a witticism by Richard Strauss, Schiff played Bach «like a cow gives milk.»

In 1982 it was the Goldberg Variations, followed by a complete Bach cycle in 1984/85 with both volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier – Sir András Schiff, born in 1953 in Budapest, has long ceased to be an insider's tip in Vienna. It was when he became an Austrian citizen in 1987 that he made his international breakthrough. «Until then, I was a refugee and had always needed a visa for my concert tours.» He has also held a British passport since 2001 and was awarded a knighthood in 2014, allowing him to put a «Sir» in front of his name.

In an early interview Sir András Schiff postulated that his aim was to contrast «the ugliness of our age» with the beauty of music. «Fundamentally, that remains the case, even if the ugliness of the present has become even worse», he says, pointing not only to the acoustic pollution all around nowadays. He left his home country in 1979 because he felt asphyxiated by life and the social climate behind the Iron Curtain. But András Schiff has never been afraid to speak out and it was current political developments in Hungary that finally caused him to publicly break with his home country for good.

His true home has only ever been in music anyway and when Sir András Schiff is performing the masterpieces of the classical and romantic repertoire in the world's great concert halls, he believes he is on a sort of mission. «Great art isn't entertainment, but an educational, a moral matter. We performers carry a huge responsibility.» Beauty is just one aspect. Particularly in very «harmonic» pieces, it is important to reveal the «unfathomable, the conflicted» aspects behind a work. «That's why Mozart is the most difficult composer of all».

The portrait series that the Wiener Konzerthaus is now dedicating to its honorary member will encompass everything that is important to Andras Schiff. It is a musical cosmos that stretches from Bach to Bartók and Janáček, from Beethoven to Brahms and Schumann. It will also include Mieczysław Weinberg and Haydn and Mozart will form the core, in conjunction with «his» Cappella Andrea Barca, the orchestra he founded in 1999 to explore the very specific sound world of the Viennese classics.