From The Telegraph:

A plague on your coughs
(Filed: 14/01/2003)

András Schiff is famous for his searching, mind-expanding explorations of the piano repertoire. Just don't get a tickle in your throat while he's playing Schubert. He talks to Geoffrey Norris

András Schiff, who turns 50 this year, has for many years been attracting capacity houses, and anybody who attends one of his recitals or concerto performances will emerge all the better for it, more informed and more musically aware.
Andras Schiff

Schiff: outspoken

But woe betide you if you misbehave.

Soft-spoken but outspoken, he can be prickly with audiences who disrupt the concentration of his playing with coughing or other extraneous noise. A couple of years ago, he famously left the platform of the Usher Hall during an Edinburgh Festival concert plagued by consumptive explosions and the trill of mobile phones, and even at London's Wigmore Hall, noted for the attentiveness of its audience, he has been known to look daggers at anyone who punctuates the air with a discourteous bark.

"These things happen," says Schiff philosophically. "But we are all human, and I get irritated by things - and then I am very angry with myself. Once in Switzerland I was playing the last Schubert sonata, and if there's one piece of music that can be killed by coughing, it's that B flat Schubert Sonata with all those crucial silences. The coughing was just impossible, and it was just one person.

"Luckily I was in a good disposition, so I just very quietly stood up and said, 'Could we now make a coughing break. Please feel free to cough,' and I just walked off. I was told by friends that this person got very red and left the hall, and after five minutes I came out and started again, and all went beautifully.

"At Edinburgh, I know what I did was drastic, but the disturbances were more than unusual. It was an all-Mozart programme. I started with the big C minor Fantasy, and, as I was about to begin the first note, the first phone went off, and it went on and on and on, with several phones and coughing and people walking in and out. So then I stormed out - it was anything but quiet on my part - and then I got very upset.

"If you are in good shape, you can try to tame this part of the audience. You observe it in the theatre also. If people are noisy, the best actors are those who speak even more quietly. They don't start shouting and screaming, but are very quiet, very composed, so that people realise that they are missing something."

Schiff and I are talking in Rome, after a packed hall of almost 2,000 had listened, cough-free, to one of his recitals in a series devoted to the last three sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Schiff, while still playing concertos and also sometimes mounting the conductor's podium for works by Bach, Mozart or Haydn, has now come to focus on projects such as the Rome one or his forthcoming series at the Wigmore Hall, in which the music of the Czech composer Janacek is set in the context of Dvorak and Smetana.

"I'm very passionate about Janácek's music," the Hungarian-born Schiff says, "because it's close to my own central-European roots. I find he is one of the most original and healthy voices from central Europe. He was somebody with great courage, trying to break away from the monopoly of Austro-German culture, and involved in a lot of ideas like nationalism and patriotism that are very up to date. In a way like Bartok - another favourite composer from this era - I just find that Janacek is like a breath of fresh air."

As for his bias towards projects and series, "it's deliberate on my part", says Schiff. "I like to find out about composers, I like to look for thematic links, and my experience is that people are extremely grateful. They like to join you on a voyage, and it's a learning process for all of us. So that means that it is now a favourite occupation for me.

"Concerto engagements are getting fewer and fewer, because they are much less interesting to me. I'd rather conduct concertos myself, or do them with a group that I know very well. With the Philharmonia in London, for example, we turn the piano round and we are partners. They are not accompanying me. I don't want to be accompanied. I want a piano concerto to be a piece of chamber music."

Dividing his time between a base in London and a house in Italy (complete with its olive grove), Schiff is "now in a very lucky position to be able to pick and choose", doing only the things that interest him and often touring with his own Steinway and Bosendorfer pianos.

"It's a great, great help to me to be able to play on my own piano and with my own technician," he says. "If you can make your life a little easier, why not?" But this care about which piano he uses is also a sign of Schiff's refined response to musical character. In Rome, he played Haydn and Beethoven on his Steinway, switching to the Bosendorfer for Schubert.

"Schubert in particular is such a quintessentially Viennese composer, and to me the Steinway is so un-Viennese while the Bosendorfer is very Viennese. It's akin to the way Viennese people speak German. It's softer, with different colours, and also I think it can do justice to Schubert's dynamics more in the softer registers."

For similar tonal reasons, when Schiff presented his Wigmore Hall series entitled Chopin and his Idols, the pieces by composers whom Chopin idolised were played on the Steinway, the Chopin works on an old French Pleyel piano of 1860. "It helps to hear things differently."

Governed as it is by such integrity, erudition and sensibility, Schiff's playing not only invites but positively commands attentive listening from audiences who share his view "that music does have a certain mission, a certain function that is not entertainment, but is much more noble".
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