Dialogue with: András Schiff
25th October 2018, 7.30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Orchestra Hall
This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a dialogue session with Sir András Schiff, which was held the day before his recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall, where he would be playing Brahms’ late works accompanied by music from other composers. What initially was supposed to be an hour’s long session turned into a nearly two-hour-long one filled with a variety of topics, great conversations and plenty of wise words from the great musician himself.
The discussion began with the moderator (whom unfortunately I do not know his name) asking Schiff about how his musical development started and developed, in particular on the playing of Bach’s music. To which, he replied, when he was a young boy, many of the performances of Bach’s keyboard works he listened to were akin to the 19th Century way of playing. It was not until he listened to Glenn Gould as a 12-year-old that made him realise that Bach’s music could be played another way, without the pedal and the “molto legato”, but instead very clear counterpoint. He also talked about his first encounter with the harpsichordist and conductor George Malcolm, how he started off page-turning for Malcolm’s concerts before studying under him.
Schiff and Malcolm discussed in great depth together about performing Bach’s works on the modern piano, and Malcolm influenced Schiff greatly on refraining from using the pedal. In that note, Schiff cautioned us about the dangers of misusing the pedal, not just for Bach’s works, but any piece of work. He pointed out that many pianists today use the pedal for everything in Bach’s music (placing the feet on the pedal seemed like a default thing like “stepping on the gas pedal”, he quipped), yet when Beethoven had an unusually long pedal marking for the Moonlight Sonata, they tend to ignore it. With that, he advised us that as long as the fingers can do the work for us, then we can consider whether to use the pedal or not. I strongly agree with this statement, as sometimes many of us tend to take the pedal for granted, and we misuse the pedal at the expense of creating a beautiful singing tone with our fingers, blurring out the counterpoint as a result.
Regarding Malcolm (as he was not only a harpsichordist, but also a composer among other things), Schiff also briefly mentioned the issue of “specialisation” in the music scene today, where musicians nowadays seem to only work on one thing, and disregard the other aspects of music. For example, pianists only work on the piano, but do not know anything about other genres, which to him was a rather “myopic” perspective.
When asked about how he had the time to learn such a wide range of repertoire, Schiff replied “the clock is the dictator of time”. To him, we have a lot of time because we live longer now. He brought up composers like Mozart and Schubert who died in their thirties, and although Haydn and Beethoven lived longer, it could not be compared to people who live till their eighties today. Schiff pointed out that the issue we should think about, rather, is about the quality of time — “what are your priorities?” he asked. He said that discipline is very important, which can be cultivated by creating a rhythm for ourselves, which will continue to drive us in the long term.
Besides quality of time, he also talked about learning the art of practice. Students nowadays “practice too much clockwise”, he said. Students focus too much on how long they practice, instead of what goes into the practice. He emphasised on the importance of focusing on tone quality above other things. He has heard too many students regurgitating the entire piece in full tempo, at least five times straight. By focusing on quality of time and the art of practice, only then we have the rest of the time to do other things, to be creative. Schiff once again returned to the topic on specialisation. “I know many scientists who know a lot about music, but many musicians do not know about Chemistry, about Physics, about Architecture”. Only when we understand about other things in life, will we have a deeper understanding about music.
Schiff spoke briefly about why he do not wish to return to his home country of Hungary. He is unable to separate arts from politics, because the arts rely heavily on it. He mentioned that if society supports the arts and puts resources into it, we should not take it for granted. “Arts is not compulsory”, yet the country is building infrastructure and setting aside funds to develop the arts, when the resources could have been used on other areas.
On musical interpretation, Schiff quoted the great cellist Pablo Casals as having said that musical form give us the “freedom, but with order”. Everyone has a different way of playing the same music, but we are limited by a “set of rules” to follow, and the rules come from the composition itself. He brought out the issue of repeats, and said that we should follow the repeats because whether the repeats were indicated or not were deliberately thought out by the composer himself. For instance, Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D.960, where the first ending before the repeat was often disregarded. With that in mind, Schiff said that we have to ask ourselves “Where my licence is and where does it end?” as interpretation is “not a matter of taste”.
Schiff mentioned that he had the opportunity to play Beethoven’s Broadwood piano in Hungary, which he felt was a great honour, despite later saying that it was not in good playing condition with many broken strings. He enjoyed playing on Mozart’s Walter piano, as it was in good playing condition. He also talked about piano makers in the Romantic era, namely the French piano manufacturers Pleyel and Erard, where Chopin preferred to play on the Pleyel because of his lean build. Schiff pointed out the difference registers of the various pianos, and it was because of that he felt that each of the period instruments were best suited to play music of their respective eras. He encouraged pianists today to try to play on period instruments as it is a good experience.
What brought to my attention was when Schiff talked about the existence of extreme softness (like ppp) and their nuances in music. On a period keyboard instrument, it is much easier to play very softly, but it is harder to do so for a modern piano, which is created to play in halls that seat at least two-thousand people. Being able to play very softly is a “dying art”, said Schiff, especially when “the world is getting noisier”. Playing very softly requires a lot of concentration.
The final part of the session was about Schiff describing his thought process when deciding on the programme for the next day’s recital. He explained that he intended to play Brahms’s late works, but felt that it was not suitable to curate an entire programme based on Brahms himself (Brahms can make people feel depressed, he said). Therefore, he decided to fill in the rest of the programme with music from other composers, but he did not want to explain further as he was intending to do so on Friday’s recital (oh that tease!).
Finally, Schiff touched on concert etiquette, where he questioned the need to applaud every time a performance ends, and when is it appropriate to applaud. When the music ends in jubilance, people will naturally want to applaud and cheer. However, Schiff despises people who applaud right after a piece of music that ends in silence. This gave me flashbacks of his last recital here, where there was a lone person who applauded right after the last note of the Goldberg Variations, which visibly annoyed him quite a bit. Schiff was wondering whether that lone person was showing off to everyone that he knows the music has ended, which was really unnecessary. It is not about keeping silent, he clarified. Rather, it is about everyone as a community feeling something out of that silent ending, and feeling the need to take “a minute of silence”. People are increasingly more uncomfortable with silence, mentioning that music needs to be in the background everywhere, in restaurants and even in the lavatory. Also, “whistling is ugly” he says, it’s “not refined”. It is definitely a reminder to us in lieu of Friday’s concert, since many of the pieces in the programme end in silence (and for other concerts in future as well, of course)!
Three questions were raised to Schiff that night, but I would like to touch on the last question, which was asking about his thoughts on music as a career for musicians today, as many musicians are relying on winning competitions and social media to get their name known. To which he said, there are two types of musicians, the amateur and the professional. The word “amateur” comes from the root word (in Latin) “amare”, which means “to love”. He observed that amateur musicians love music more than many professionals. “The love of music is gone, it is a disaster!” he lamented. He does not envy musicians who work under “bad conductors”, those who play music they do not enjoy. “Music is not a job, it is a privilege.”, said Schiff.
For people wanting to be professional musicians, he encouraged us to play more chamber music or involve ourselves more in the chorus, as pianists can sometimes be very lonely, and we should not keep ourselves in isolation. He mentioned that he loved working with amateurs, and felt that music education should not just be for professionals, but should also be focused on the amateurs, as we really need good listeners now. “Focus on the love for music, and the rest will come”, he advised.
Schiff also declared himself as the “greatest opponent” of music competitions, as he does not equate music to sports. Furthermore, in music competitions the judgement is very subjective and personal. Unfortunately, there aren’t any alternatives to competitions, although he has been helping young musicians to get themselves out there through concert opportunities, albeit to only a selective few.
Having gone through the dialogue, my greatest takeaway was how much Schiff was driven purely by his love for music. To him, it was not about the fame and the fortune, but his love for music that drives him to be where he is today. Schiff taught us to focus on what really matters, encouraged us to get out of our comfort zones and see music in a more holistic sense, and reminded us to never take music for granted and to always have a good balance in life. If something that we do is against our nature, then something is really very wrong.
Overall, it was a wonderful and meaningful dialogue session with András Schiff and I learnt a lot on music and about life in the process.