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 Interview, Sir András Schiff on Schubert

Sir András SchiffRegular readers may recall how transported I was by the second volume of Sir András Schiff’s exquisitely intimate survey of late Schubert on ECM last month, recorded on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano which he purchased in 2010; the recording was our bestselling album for April, and I hope that it’s afforded as much pleasure to the hundreds of you who’ve invested in it as it’s given to me over the past six weeks.

Thanks to our friends at Askonas Holt, I had the opportunity to ask Sir András a few questions over email about his relationship with this extraordinary instrument and the special qualities which it brings to late Schubert, and why he considers Schubert to be 'quintessentially a composer for the voice'...

How did you first ‘meet’ the Brodmann fortepiano which you used to record your two recent volumes of Schubert?

This instrument used to belong to Jörg-Ewald‎ Dähler, a very good Swiss musician. When he stopped playing he sent me a message via our mutual friend the violinist Erich Höbarth that he wanted to sell it and maybe I would be interested. So I went to his home in Bern, fell in love with it at first sight and bought it immediately.

What qualities make it so eminently suited to late Schubert, and has it altered your perspective on the music itself?

It's ideal for Schubert but also for certain Beethoven sonatas, like Op. 78 (a very 'Schubertian‎' work, anachronistically speaking). It's the timbre, the very distinct registers, the singing quality. And first and foremost the quiet and quietest passages – which are so essential in Schubert – can be executed beautifully. In this the modern piano is a poor contender, much too robust and plainly too loud. My perspective of the music is still the same but on the Brodmann the subtleties are much more satisfying.

Both of your ECM Schubert recordings were made in the Beethoven-Haus – what’s special about its acoustic, and how does it compare with your earlier experience of recording this music in the Musikverein?

It's essential to find the right venue for the right instrument. The Beethoven-Haus has a wonderful little hall: it only seats 200, it's shaped like an amphitheatre, and most of it is made of wood. Under the stage are the archives with priceless manuscripts and documents, so it's very inspiring. And needless to say, it's absolutely quiet. Of course the Musikverein is wonderful, but it would be much too large for a fortepiano. When I recorded the Schubert sonatas there, we had a couple of incidents. We were recording in the Brahms-Saal and at the same time Claudio Abbado was rehearsing Mahler's Second Symphony in the big hall. In the middle of a pianissimo passage we suddenly had this horrendous noise - the offstage trumpets were placed in front of our door. On another occasion I was in the midst of a take and the balcony door opened and the cleaning lady came in with a vacuum cleaner. When asked why, she said: 'I'm only doing my job'. This could never happen in Bonn!

You’ve transported the instrument to London for your Wigmore recitals several times over the past few years: what are the logistics involved, and does it require any special attention after travelling?

This is luxury indeed, and it's very expensive. ‎Transportation has to be very careful and it can only be done in certain periods of the year. Hard winter conditions are not good for the instrument. And the technician-tuner always has to be there.

In the short video which you made for ECM, you describe Schubert as ‘quintessentially a composer for the voice’ – do you feel a connection with any specific songs in the late sonatas and impromptus?

There are several that come to my mind. Of course Erlkönig, both in the C minor Impromptu and also in the terrifying finale of the C minor sonata D958. Der Gondelfahrer in the second movement of D959; and Auf dem Wasser zu singen in the fourth Impromptu of D899. I could go on and on...

Do you have plans to re-record any of the Lieder and/or chamber music on this instrument?

Not necessarily.

How do you feel about revisiting these works on a modern piano in larger venues?

‎Of course one should continue to play this music on modern instruments and in larger halls but the Brodmann will always be in the back of my mind. I'm also convinced that a really good Bösendorfer is a much more idiomatic piano for Schubert than a Steinway. Ludwig Bösendorfer's teacher in Vienna happened to be Josef Brodmann.

András Schiff (fortepiano)

András Schiff’s recording of the Four Impromptus D899, the Klavierstucke D958, and Piano sonatas Nos. 19 & 20 was released on 12th April.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

'The 1820 Brodmann instrument sounds glorious: its tone and action seem ideally to suit these works…let us hope there is more to come.' (Classical Music)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC