Avoid anyone who hasn’t got a sense of humor, András Schiff says. The Hungarian-Austrian-British pianist is one of classical music’s wittiest joke tellers. But when it comes to certain things, it’s no longer a matter of fun and games. If someone coughs during the Adagio of the First Brahms Concerto, he continues playing the cantilena with his left hand while clenching his right fist - after which no one dares to make a sound.
Schiff studied in London with original sound pioneer George Malcom and with composer and pianist György Kurtág - both teachers with an incredible sense for the sound of an instrument. This awareness is reflected not only in his interpretations, but also in his choice of instrument: Schiff selects his pianos according to the piece, his interpretive approach, and the performance venue. Most often he plays a Bösendorfer, occasionally a Steinway, and sometimes also historical instruments.
Schiff first attracted attention in the mid-1970s with his Bach recordings. His lectures on the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas are a treasure trove of witticisms and illuminating insights. While some pianists grow more sentimental as they age, with Schiff it is the opposite: his 2001 Goldberg Variations are notable for their straightforwardness, more so than in his recording from the 1980s. And in recent years, he has also refrained from using the sostenuto pedal in playing Bach.
1958 begins learning the piano at the age of five - decides to become a musician at ten
1967 enrolls at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music at the age of fourteen
1979 emigrates from Hungary
1987 becomes an Austrian citizen
2001 acquires British citizenship
2004 to 2007 Artist in Residence at the Kunstfest Weimar
2007/08 Pianist in Residence of the Berlin Philharmonic
2011/2012 "Perspectives Artists" at Carnegie Hall
2014 dubbed Knight Bachelor of Britain
Did you know?
One of Schiff’s favorite jokes: three prisoners are sitting in their jail cell in Communist Poland. “Why are you here?”, they ask one of them. “I was against Gomulka.” - “And you?” - “I was for Gomulka.” - “And what about you?”, they ask the third. “I’m Gomulka.”
Schiff’s repertoire is centered around Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. It also includes Mendelssohn, Brahms, Smetana, Dvorák, Janácek, Debussy, and particularly Bartók.
In addition, he plays contemporary works by Holliger, Kurtág, and Widman as well as chamber music.
Schiff also takes a stand on social and political questions. After right-wing parties rose to power in the Austrian and Hungarian governments, he cancelled his concerts in both countries.
For Schiff, Bach represents the culmination of European musical history. He begins each day with a ritual: one hour of Bach. This, he says, is his “bath for the soul.”
Sermons by Brendel and Barenboim notwithstanding, Schiff prefers not to play Liszt, despite the fact that he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy, where he experienced and played the composer’s music. As he explained, he heard too much poorly-played Liszt at the time - and the antipathy remained.
Schiff stopped playing etudes and finger exercises at the age of eighteen. He prefers Bach’s preludes and fugues.
Schiff is highly inquisitive and enjoys reading, drawing inspiration from theaters, museums, and films.
Schiff is also active as a conductor, leading such ensembles as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.