Pianist András Schiff’s last recital in Santa Barbara was so vividly memorable, it’s a bit of a shock to discover it took place nearly a decade ago. It was May 2004; the location was the Lobero Theatre, and the program was all Bach.
Friday night, the great Hungarian pianist returns to that same venue, again playing the music of the greatest composer of the baroque era (if not of all time). Schiff, 59, shared his insights into the composer’s music in an email interview.
Your program will consist of Bach’s six English Suites. Have you an educated guess about their genesis? There is also absolutely nothing “English” about this wonderful music. Each suite starts with a Prelude. These are — with the notable exception of the first suite — quite monumental and orchestral. After the Prelude, we have the dances … which originate from Germany (Allemande), France (Courante), Spain (Sarabande), and Ireland (Gigue or Jig). Bach was the greatest European when he united these. He was much more successful in his efforts than the present-day politicians of the E.U.
You play Bach on the piano, but in recent years, you have decided not to use the pedal while playing his music. Is this a way of getting closer to his original sound or intent? Yes, I play Bach without the sustaining pedal. It’s my choice. It would be possible to use pedal — as most of my colleagues do — but I don’t want to do that. Bach’s music is so pure, the polyphony and the voice-leading so clear, it needs maximum clarity and transparency. The pedal can only destroy that — especially when used indiscriminately. I don’t understand pianists and teachers who insist on the pedal in Bach, yet with Beethoven — who is very specific in asking for the pedal — they simply ignore his instructions.
Please describe how your approach to a great work changes over the years. Great music is — as (legendary pianist) Artur Schnabel said — always greater than any performance can be. It’s a lifetime’s work — and more — to study it, let it rest and grow, and to come back to it at various stages of our lives. At each new encounter, we feel that we understand it better, deeper. Details are important, but they must be incorporated into the whole concept. In performance, I try to “let go” and think of the whole picture. In practice, we study and analyze; in performance, we must integrate.
Are you concerned about the widely discussed decline in audiences for classical music? There is too much talk about the deep crisis in classical music. It’s only partly true. Today we have more concerts per square mile than ever before. Audiences are huge — not if we compare them with popular music, but if we compare them with the times of Bach and Beethoven, who were writing for a few hundred connoisseurs. The problem is not quantity but quality. There is a lot of rubbish out there, and it’s all mixed together with the really valuable material. Most people don’t know the difference. It’s a question of education.
Finally, a broad philosophical question: In your view, why do we make music, and why do we listen to it? Art and science, knowledge and culture: This is what makes human beings special. Among the arts, music is the most spiritual. It can’t be described by words. I sincerely believe that music can heal. It can connect and make better and more understanding human beings.
András Schiff will be at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, April 19, at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, visit lobero.com or call 963-0761.