An evening with the witty, grumpy Andràs Schiff
The great Hungarian pianist/conductor Andràs Schiff is known worldwide for his Bach, his impish wit, his old-school stagecraft and his prickly opinions. This combination makes for a delightful evening. All those strengths were on display when he treated the Bordeaux music crowd to a recital in the 14th annual l’Esprit du Piano festival. The Auditorium venue was virtually sold out.
Schiff creates an atmosphere that we “seniors” remember from the old days. No clowning, no bouncing on the bench, no outlandish clothing. He dresses in a black smock, black trousers, black shoes, topped off with a mane of pure white hair. His manners, his grateful bowing, are très Old Europe.
Schiff keeps control of his two hours onstage. He believes that dignity goes with the great music on the program and he scarcely moves as he plays. Present-day rituals of young pianists, he has written, are “like snake charmers”. Young conductors also annoy him. Too many of them “nearly jump up to the ceiling in the very first bars”. He enjoyed introducing his selections with a chatty overview in good French, light enough to get laughs out of Bordeaux music-lovers.
The design of the Bordeaux program was typical of his approach, reflecting his connection with the great composers of the past. He deliberately contrasted Mozart and Haydn, and his Beethoven sounded fresh and untrodden. He never ventured out of the 19th century -- no living composers were included. Much of contemporary music is “simply incompatible with the way I play the piano”, he writes in his new book “Music Comes out of Silence”. When a score requires the piano to be treated with brute force, “I have to pass”, he says.
Schiff produces clarity of tone well-suited to the near-perfect Bordeaux acoustics. Like Barenboim and others, he is an advocate of designer pianos. For this recital, he trucked in his new Boesendorfer grand from London, built to his specifications and played with a quiet delicacy rarely heard these days. He ended most of his selections with a chord that slowly faded into silence. The audience sensed it was time to hold their applause.
Schiff is ending his two-year role as artist-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic this year, a fitting crown of his 70-year career. He has played with most of the world’s major orchestras, and conducted master classes at Juilliard, Oberlin and the Royal Academy of Music. But his progression was not always easy. In 1973 he placed a distant third in the Leeds Piano Competition. The jury held back giving him the gold medal because of one determined dissenter in the group, Rosalyn Tureck. The smart set of the time said she nixed him because he played Bach better than she could.
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