The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Pianist Andras Schiff to bring 'element of surprise' to Korea

By Park Ga-young

Published : Oct. 24, 2022 - 15:56

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When celebrated pianist Andras Schiff returns to South Korea in November after three years of pandemic-caused delays, the longest gap since he started performing in the country in 2008, the Hungarian-born Austro-British classical pianist said he will bring an "element of surprise."

In the past recitals in Korea, he performed a wide range of works by Bach, Schumann, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Departing from his usual repertoire, he will perform "something out of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven songs," but no details have been disclosed.

“I believe in freedom and spontaneity. It’s not normal to tell the audience two years in advance what they are going to hear,” he said in a recent email interview. “Do you know today what you are going to have for dinner in two years’ time? Where is the element of surprise? I feel much freer this way. And the performances are fresher.”

This unconventional practice of announcing the program on the spot is something the 68-year-old pianist started during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, I was miserable, almost depressed. I forced myself to keep working and studying, to stay in my own rhythm. Now it’s much better, but it will never be normal again,” he said.

His recitals in South Korea were originally scheduled for 2021 with a program of Bach and Beethoven, but they were canceled due to the pandemic. It wasn’t until September this year that his recitals were rescheduled last minute for next month.

Pianist Andras Schif (Mast Media) Pianist Andras Schif (Mast Media)

Born in 1953, the eminent pianist started taking piano lessons at the age of 5 and is one of the most acclaimed and intellectual pianists in the world today, having received a long list of major awards and honors including the Grammy Award, Gramophone Award and many more.

He is also known for his passion for “old” pianism. He has played on the very instruments once owned by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which allowed him to learn how they function and sound, he said.

"With that information in my ears, I approach the modern piano differently," he added.

He even owns a fortepiano made in about 1820 by Franz Brodmann, with which he created remarkable recordings of Schubert and Beethoven.

Schiff said he admires many pianists from the past such as Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Josef Hofmann, Alfred Cortot, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Friedman, Annie Fischer, Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode and Peter Serkin.

He highlighted their uniqueness and indicated they offer valuable lessons to today’s pianists.

“These old masters were great individuals, each one of them totally different from the other. And they had their personal tone. The quality of their sound is different for each piece of music,” he noted. “Today most pianists sound very similar, it’s impossible to distinguish between them, to recognize them. And the piano sound has become very dull, very prosaic, not poetic.”

The pianist has also been conducting a “Lecture and Concert” series in several major concert halls in an effort to better educate the audience about music. He explained that because of the lack of music education at home and school, audiences are less able to fully enjoy the music.

“It needs some guidance, some information. It’s much better if the performer does it rather than leaving it to the writer of the program book. During the concert people should be listening to the music and NOT reading the program notes,” he stressed.

As a pianist, he has been focusing on solo recitals for the past several years, but also devotes much of his time to conducting and teaching. Schiff, who has taught many young Korean pianists including Kim Sun-wook, Cho Seong-jin and Moon Ji-young, praised them, but also offered some advice.

“There is amazing talent in Korea. This is wonderful and it must be protected and nourished. Not through competitions,” he noted.

“Here I must mention my dear friend Myung-whun Chung, we met at competitions which we both haven’t won. And look what a great conductor he has become!”

Schiff was referring to the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1974 when Schiff ranked fourth and Chung took home a joint silver prize. At the Leeds International Competition in 1975, Schiff won a joint third prize and Chung a joint fourth prize.

In a 2011 interview with a local newspaper, Chung said, "When I participated in the competition in 1974, everyone expected Andras Schiff to win, but he was ranked fourth. You can see the outcome of the competition is neither absolute nor lifelong. It just provides an opportunity to begin."

Since his first performance in Korea in 2018, Schiff has visited regularly, once every two years on average. This time, he’s excited to meet an audience in a new city.

“The (Korean) audiences have been fantastic, very attentive and enthusiastic. And so many young people! I’ve heard Busan is a beautiful city by the sea, I’ve never played in Busan before, so I’m looking forward to meeting new audiences,” Schiff said.

Schiff’s first recital will take place in Seoul at 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 at Lotte Concert Hall and then at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10 at Busan Cultural Center. Ticket prices range from 50,000 won to 150,000 won.