A Pianist Comes Around on Period Instruments

For a lot of his profession, the eminent pianist Andras Schiff, 67, disdained the usage of historic devices. He proudly performed Bach on fashionable pianos; referred to fortepianists with an curiosity in Schubert as mere “specialists”; and advised a New York Times interviewer in 1983, “I’ve heard some ghastly things done in the name of authenticity.”

Time and expertise, although, have caused a wholesale change in his perspective, and Schiff has reworked into an keen evangelist for the usage of historic keyboards. Several years in the past he acquired an 1820 fortepiano, which he has used to make compelling recordings of Beethoven and Schubert. In latest interviews, he has criticized the rising homogeneity of piano efficiency, with fashionable Steinways used for repertoire of each period.

Schiff’s newest enterprise on this enviornment is his most convincing but: a vibrant new recording of Brahms’s two piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Aiming to recuperate the sound of this music when it was written, Schiff performs a piano made by Julius Blüthner in Leipzig, Germany, in 1859 — the yr of the First Concerto’s premiere. He additionally — a rarity in these works — serves as each soloist and conductor, main an ensemble of round 50 gamers.

Schiff showing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which performs on interval devices, in London in 2019.Credit…Tristram Kenton

Wiping away the historic grime, Schiff and the orchestra breathe air and vitality into items that, even in profitable performances, can sound heavy and clotted; the drier instrumental palette as a substitute conveys unbelievable magnificence. Words like monumental have a method of attaching themselves to those concertos, however Mr. Schiff and the excellent gamers make them sound intimate and human-scale.

Schiff spoke about these works and his interpretations in a latest cellphone name from London. These are edited excerpts from the dialog.

What modified your skepticism about historic devices?

What transformed me was once I first performed Mozart’s piano in Salzburg, within the room the place he was born. This will need to have been the second half of the 1980s. It was the primary time I met an instrument — an unique instrument, not a replica — that was in great situation. Subsequently, there have been many events to seek out great devices. I’m now attending to a spot the place I’ll discover it very tough to play music on fashionable pianos.

But whilst late because the 1990s, you had been nonetheless saying in interviews that, for instance, you wouldn’t consider enjoying Schubert on a fortepiano.

I did say that, sure. I’ve to take it again, or I’ve to say that I used to be not well-informed, or plain silly. One needs to be versatile and one has to say, typically, I made a mistake; I used to be incorrect.

Why was Brahms the subsequent composer you determined to report in a traditionally knowledgeable method?

It was a logical step from Schubert. And additionally, I met this glorious orchestra, the Age of Enlightenment, and we did the Robert Schumann concerto collectively on the Royal Festival Hall in London, which has one thing like two and a half thousand seats.

It’s a really problematic corridor. There are at all times seats the place the piano is roofed by the orchestra. And for the primary time in my life, within the Schumann with this orchestra it was completely with none issues: the stability, the way in which the piano got here throughout, the way in which the orchestral elements got here throughout. So after the Schumann I assumed, Let’s strive the Brahms.

Playing the Brahms concertos on a contemporary piano with fashionable orchestras, there have been at all times stability issues. And I discovered, particularly within the B-flat Concerto, that it was simply bodily and psychologically very arduous to play. Somehow, with this Blüthner piano, the bodily difficulties disappear. The keys are a tiny bit narrower, so the stretches aren’t so tiring, and the motion is far lighter. So there’s not this colossal bodily work concerned.

What had been the challenges of doing the concertos on this method?

The problem is, in fact, to play and conduct and maintain it collectively. And there are various, many locations the place your arms are busy, so you can’t conduct. Therefore, you want an actual associate, as a result of this isn’t accompaniment, however give and take. And so the orchestra has to anticipate and pay attention very fastidiously. It wants an orchestra the place we all know one another intimately, which has a chamber-music-like strategy.

You obtain a exceptional degree of audible element in these performances.

That was our intention: transparency and readability, and in addition simply to eliminate the fats already related to this music from, I’d say, the 1930s. And in orchestral phrases, for instance, the intestine strings make an enormous distinction.

I believe that in any music you play, this heaviness additionally comes from — for those who see, let’s say, a dotted half observe or an extended observe, folks simply sit on it without end. The composer won’t write a diminuendo on that lengthy observe, as a result of Brahms, let’s say, anticipated a musical individual to do this mechanically.

You’re saying that he didn’t write the diminuendo simply because it will have been apparent to the performer.

Yes. This already occurs throughout in Mozart and Beethoven. With each orchestra, once I play and conduct, I’ve to inform them, infinite instances, “You wind players, please, attack the note, and then get softer,” as a result of with these sustained chords, you’re overlaying all of the element that you just spoke about.

Can you consider a selected passage in both of the Brahms concertos through which the usage of these devices permits the music to come back throughout with uncommon freshness?

For instance, within the first motion of the Second Concerto, the event part can sound, in fashionable efficiency, very muddy and never clear, as a result of there’s a lot counterpoint there. I’m very happy to listen to all these particulars.

But additionally, take the opening of the third motion, with the cello solo. If it’s performed with these devices, subsequent to the cello solo you hear all the opposite decrease strings: the cellos and violas, after which later the oboe and bassoon. I simply hear these layers of sound, as a substitute of a normal sauce.

You additionally write within the liner notes that “Brahms on the piano is definitely not for children.” What do you imply?

I’ve a really robust view on this, what younger folks ought to play and what they need to not play. They shouldn’t play the early Brahms, due to the big bodily challenges, and so they shouldn’t, definitely, play the late Brahms, the place they may handle the notes, however these items are the abstract of a lifetime.

But they do it anyway. I imply, as we speak, any child involves you with the “Goldberg” Variations or the final three Beethoven sonatas. Anything goes. And who am I to say? I’m not a policeman. It’s a pleasant piece of recommendation that if you end up younger, select the proper items. And wait with these till you’re older.

In my ripe previous age, I’m starting now to cut back my repertoire. But I’m very blissful to play now the late Brahms, and the final three sonatas of Beethoven. And then there’s music, Bach and Mozart, that you just begin enjoying if you end up very younger, and so they stick with you till the day you die.