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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