Andras Schiff: The political pianist

He lambasts the rising tide of fascism, his fellow musicians and Liszt. Thank God for Janacek and Bartok, he tells Michael Church

Thursday 14 June 2001 00:00

Disc released by unworldly pianist, who doesn't drive, hates the internet, favours intimate venues, and regards the Three Tenors as professional prostitutes... So what's new? Well, with Andras Schiff you never know, so I beat a path to his exquisite Marylebone pad, on the off-chance that he might have something to get off his chest.

He's swinging his punches before we've even sat down. First up are the hapless directors of Decca, for whom he once devotedly recorded. His new CD of Janacek's piano music includes a lot of pieces he'd done for that label 10 years before. "But they've disappeared ­ been deleted. No sane person measures the success of serious music by how it sells in the first three months. Good records have long lives. They can't be treated like pop hits."

Janacek and Bartok are the 20th-century composers Schiff feels closest to, because of their determination to break away from the Austro-German tradition, and because of their roots in folklore, and the rhythms of speech. "But Janacek was a late discovery for me ­ he didn't figure in my studies. People at the Liszt Academy in Budapest hardly mentioned him. That was because of the stupid rivalry that still exists in Central Europe. For he was a Czech. In the same way, the Czech's haven't yet accepted Bartok as a great composer. In Hungary we don't play Enescu [a Romanian] or Szymanowski [a Pole] ­ it's all chauvinism. This extends to performers. I may be well-known in London or New York or Vienna, but in Warsaw and Prague nobody knows who I am."

When I ask what he thinks about the plight of that fabled Liszt Academy, his reply is contemptuous. "All the professors who made it great have either died, or retired, or gone to work in the West, and it's just a shadow of its former self. Its problems go far deeper than the lack of money it's always complaining about." Money, he thinks, is the root of all Hungary's present troubles: not so much the lack of it, as the way it's spread about. "There's so little idealism left, that I doubt if they can ever regain the spirit they once had. When I look at the Hungarian musical scene, I feel real nostalgia for the hated old world. Culturally, it was not all bad. Now everyone's obsessed with money, and the place is corrupt."

If he wasn't Jewish, would he have been less hard on his native land? "Sure. It's not that I'm unforgiving ­ I do forgive ­ but I don't forget. I know there were Hungarians who behaved decently in the Second World War, but..." This is a man who calls himself "a Jew born in Hungary", rather than a Hungarian Jew, and who regards his own birth as a miracle, given the Hungarians' strenuous efforts to kill his parents. What gets him going now is the oppression of Hungary's Gypsies ­ "They like to have them playing the violin in restaurants, but that's just the shop-window" ­ and the re-emergence of right-wing racism.

He's still bitter that he was unable to take American citizenship when he defected from Hungary 22 years ago: "Nobody warned me that I would have to sit in New York for five years to qualify, and how could a travelling pianist do that?" He applied instead for Austrian citizenship, on the advice of friends who pointed out how welcoming the then-socialist government was to artists and scientists seeking refuge. "But the Austrian situation now strikes an unpleasant chord for me, a very dissonant chord. At least Georg Haider is losing ground at present."

What most shocked Schiff was the passive reaction of Austria's liberals, and the silence of Austrian artists: Schiff recently went on record criticising Alfred Brendel for this, but in our interview he refuses to name names. "I was simply disappointed that in that land of music, no musician should protest. A lot of actors protested, but, because of the language-barrier, they were not well-known outside the German-speaking countries, whereas musicians are international figures, which imposes on them a duty. If Arnold Schwarzenegger could protest, surely musicians could do so, too. If they don't, it means they are not unhappy with the situation."

So unhappy was Schiff that he cancelled a string of concerts, and when he and his orchestra did play in Salzburg recently, he insisted that the programme include a political statement condemning racism. The reaction in Britain and the US was gratifying, but the Austrian one was not. "Most of my friends in Vienna ­ my so-called friends ­ turned against me. I am now persona non grata. In Salzburg they said I had shown the other players who had not protested in a very strange light, and I said, OK, but that's not my problem. They had the freedom to speak out if they wanted, and obviously they did not want to. I now feel very much alone." He gives an awkward laugh. "Such things are always easier with colleagues on your side."

Then he looks back over the history of this argument. Was Beethoven apolitical? Ridiculous! Look at Bartok's suicidal emigration to the US as his protest against the Nazis! Even the work in hand ­ Janacek's Piano Sonata ­ was composed in political anger: to assert solidarity with the students in Brno who were fired on when they demonstrated in support of a Czech-speaking university. Artists must take sides.

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Schiff's tone mellows when he talks about his own work ­ imminent recordings of Schumann, more distant ones of Beethoven and Bach ­ but the mere mention of his alma mater's patron saint gets him going once more. "There's total antipathy between me and Liszt, but at the same time admiration at his mastery. I find his personality unappealing ­ the playboy turned hermit. It's like a man who has told too many lies for too long, and now he's telling the truth, but it's too late! His music is just vulgar."

Which leads Schiff to make an interesting distinction. Why is it, he asks, that musicians aren't divided into the keyboard equivalent of acrobats and ballet-dancers? "You could say it's sour grapes because I can't play all the notes in the Godowsky Etudes, but I don't think so. God forbid that Volodos and Hamélin [two noted virtuosi] should play Beethoven's Opus 111, because it wouldn't be good." The two pianisms ­ athletic and poetic ­ can't be compared, and shouldn't be set against each other as they are in the Gramophone Awards.

"These are strange days," he concludes. "In the Fifties, nobody in his right mind would have called Liberace a classical artist. But if he were to appear now, it would be quite conceivable." A strange man, this: unworldly, very worldly-wise.

'Leos Janacek: A Recollection' by Andras Schiff is released by ECM New Series

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