An exile from the modern world

Andras Schiff prefers to live in the timeless present of the historical past - which is also one of the things that has drawn the pianist to Chopin, the latest in his series of `love affairs' with composers.

No one needs an excuse to stage a Chopin festival - his music's in the air we breathe - but people are already getting excited about 17 October, the 150th anniversary of his death. While the South Bank wheels on big guns like Krystian Zimerman and Mitsuko Uchida, film-makers will be doing their bit. Tony Palmer - who has just released a free-associative farrago on Rachmaninov - is currently building a film round Chopin' s notoriously lewd letters to Delfina Potocka. Palmer's hero will be played by the new heart-throb Ioan Gruffud, boldly going where Hugh Grant went - in James Lapine's Impromptu - 10 years before.

But the best Chopin film we shall see this year is the one in the Omnibus slot on Monday. This is the second collaboration between Andras Schiff and film-maker Mischa Scorer - their first was on Schubert - and it's chalk to Palmer's cheese. Scorer embraces the cliches - a statue under weeping willows, raindrops on a windowpane, slow pans over period engravings - but the armature of his film is the playing and talking of Andras Schiff. We're riveted by Schiff's graceful performances, and hang on his every word.

Schiff's technical observations are not new - Chopin As Seen By His Pupils (CUP) has spelt out the composer's simple but revolutionary keyboard philosophy - and his view that Chopin was a classicist, rather than a Romantic, is generally accepted. He emphasises, as others have, Chopin' s addiction to solitude, but he pushes this argument in a provocative direction. Why did Chopin insist on wearing white gloves freshly laundered each day? To signal his horror of contact, says Schiff. "As if to say: `Don't touch me. Stay away from me.'"

Schiff punctuates his narrative with a chilling tale. Schumann, the first critic to hail Chopin' s genius, later dedicated his Kreisleriana to him, and sent him the score. Chopin left it unopened for several years and, when he finally glanced at it, dismissed it with the contemptuous words: "This is no music at all."

Schiff has said that he likes to get under the skin of the composers he plays; that he needs to love them. So how does he feel about Chopin? "He was a very strange person. And a rotten colleague! Doing this film after the one on Schubert, I found Chopin - who was wildly anti-Semitic - increasingly hard to like. Some things in his personality it would have been better not to know about."

One thing of which Schiff does approve is the fact that Chopin "was not a modern person". Is this partly because Schiff feels himself to be trapped in the wrong period? "Yes. I am always nostalgic for times which I only know from description. I can't drive, nor do I intend to. There is no computer in my house, nor will there be. And I don't feel good in the modern musical world, which is tasteless, money-driven, and with very little sense of quality."

He despises what he sees as the "prostitution" of musicians like Nigel Kennedy and the Three Tenors; he wears the elitist label with pride. "The core audience for good music - for any good art - will always be small. A Haydn quartet would have been written to be heard by maybe 10 people. Today's enormous audiences were not envisaged." Indeed, his ideal venue is the Wigmore Hall, where he plays - often with friends or his Japanese violinist wife - for an audience of devoted fans.

"Music," he says, "is not a job or a profession, it's a total dedication." He recently published a jokey-but-serious list of audience rules, one of which ran: "Thou shalt not applaud too soon." Absolutely right, and too seldom observed: some works demand to be surrounded by a silence; exhibitionist whoopers are a plague.

Le style, c'est l'homme: to visit Schiff at home - where one fears to tread on the white wool carpets - is to realise that he is terrifyingly all-of-a-piece. Just as his playing is characterised by a limpid expressiveness, so is his speech, which has that careful exactitude only foreigners can bring.

He's Jewish, and was born in Hungary, but hates being called a Hungarian Jew. Hungarians, he says, did their best to kill his parents during the Second World War. His defection to the West in 1979 was planned after long deliberation and, though he still occasionally plays in Budapest, it's with no great pleasure. Home is now a mews house in Marylebone and a villa in Florence.

How, I ask, does he view the current plight of the Liszt Academy, where he studied with his beloved Georgy Kurtag? His answer is surprisingly cool. "It's been going downhill since the Fifties - I was lucky to have three of the last great teachers. I know the roof is leaking, but it's too easy to blame everything on money, as people in the former Communist bloc always do. The professors aren't top class any more, and the huge funds which flow in from foreign students - where do they all go? Down dubious corridors that we do not see. I'm keeping my distance from the Academy at present." Valerie Solti, currently leading an international campaign to save the place, won't get much joy out of him.

Musically speaking, he resides in the timeless present of the historical past. He's had his love affairs with Brahms, Bartok, Schubert and Chopin, and feels a new one coming on with Schumann, who may well be the subject of his next film. "It's funny, the more I play Schumann, the less I want to play Brahms - yet when I was 14 he was my favourite composer. But other figures are always there in your life - Bach, Mozart, Haydn." And Beethoven? "Of course. Every year I feel closer to him, a towering figure. If I have the luck to live a few years more" - Schiff is only 46! - "they will be devoted to him. I am not ready to do his last sonatas yet."

Like fellow pianists Murray Perahia and Richard Goode, Schiff can't get his ears round serialism. "I would rather die than listen to Schoenberg's Wind Quintet again. I'm sure it's excellent, but to me it's the utmost torture." He could imagine himself playing Ligeti, but absolutely not Boulez. "A lot of contemporary music requires a radically different approach to the piano from the one I was trained in - a sort of piano writing which is very percussive, where the tone quality doesn't matter any more." It all boils down to the musical language one was brought up in, he adds. "It's no good coming to it later, like a second language. Serialism is Sanskrit to me."

But no one should write this man off as a diehard conservative. "As a performer, you either wait for the great new work, which usually doesn't come, or you play things which many other people have already played wonderfully. What is the point of recording the Moonlight, when you can't do it as well as Schnabel? One has to find other ways of being useful." Which means exploring virgin territory.

To prove the point he's just released on Teldec a record of Smetana's polkas. "I've always felt close to Czech music, and I've always known that he wrote piano music as well as things like Ma Vlast and The Bartered Bride, but who has ever heard a note of it? I got the scores and was amazed to find they ran to seven or eight volumes. He must have been a staggering pianist, and his polkas were clearly a parallel to Chopin's mazurkas, each utterly different, and almost as beautiful as Chopin's own works - I couldn't pay any composer a greater compliment than that. I said to myself, how could so much beautiful music remain so totally unknown?"

On his recent visit to Desert Island Discs it became abundantly clear that - so long as he had a piano, and barring missing his friends - Schiff would make the perfect castaway. In a sense that is how he is already living his life.

`Omnibus: Chopin with Andras Schiff', BBC 1, Monday 17 May, 10.45pm

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit