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Translated from the Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff’s Musik kommt aus der Stille (Henschel Verlag, 2017), this book of conversations and essays on music, politics and history is evidence that an international keyboard virtuoso sometimes markets different faces to different audiences.

At 66, Schiff is rightly acclaimed as an interpreter of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others, with an exemplary series of recordings on ECM. Yet clearly his sensibilities are still evolving. In the original book’s conversations with the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, Schiffopined in German: ‘There are not very many good female Beethoven players. I know this is a dangerous statement, but it is true. Annie Fischer, who played Beethoven fabulously, was the exception. Beethoven is very masculine, but this must not lead to forcing.’

Three years later, this has been altered in English translation to be more politically correct: ‘Masculinity isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for great Beethoven playing. There have been some marvellous female Beethoven players: Myra Hess, for instance, or Annie Fischer. It’s true that Beethoven is very masculine, but that shouldn’t tempt one to force.’

Did Schiff change his mind, suddenly remembering Myra Hess, or was the text modified to appeal to a woke English- language readership? Last year, Schiff experienced the pitfalls of ‘dangerous statements’ during an engagement with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. As the Montreal Gazette reported in November 2019, Schiff ‘flew off the handle’, accusing musicians of ‘sabotage’ at a rehearsal of Bartók’s Dance Suite. Since then, he may have learned about the usefulness of diplomacy.

Generally, Schiff is more evocative about piano compositions than pianists, although detailed recollections of Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Rados and Annie Fischer are valuable, even if vague; generalised praise of Rudolf Serkin disappoints. An essay from November 2014 curiously excoriates a Berlin theatre production of a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt adapted into a ‘ludicrous and vulgar pseudo-musical with – I shudder to say it – songs by Lady Gaga.’ Schiff also shudders about the audience, ‘full of schoolchildren who have no idea about the play, and consequently behave badly, but can happily identify with Lady Gaga and co.’

This type of disdain may repel a few of the admirers that Schiff’s artistry fully deserves. Possibly edited transcripts of his insightful May 2006 lecture demonstrations on Beethoven’s sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall could be derived from podcasts posted on the Guardian website, as a more uniformly appealing introduction to Schiff.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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