Pianist Schiff's Midas touch Music: Already famed for recordings of Bach and Schubert, Hungarian virtuoso tries his hand at Bartok, and even conducting.

March 19, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, who came to fame 20 years ago as the man who made it safe to play Bach on the modern piano, visits Meyerhoff Hall this week to perform the works of that composer with the Baltimore Symphony.

But there's a lot more to Schiff than Bach.

He is fresh from a series of triumphal concerts in New York in which he and tenor Peter Schreier performed all of the major song cycles of Schubert -- of whose keyboard works Schiff is perhaps the most persuasive exponent since the death of Artur Schnabel nearly 50 years ago.

This Sunday afternoon in Bethesda at the National Institutes of Health, the pianist will give a recital consisting entirely of the works of Schumann -- another personal favorite. And Schiff's record label, Teldec, has just released the pianist's recording of the three Bartok concertos in performances so enlightening that they may change the way that composer's keyboard music is perceived.

It seems all the more remarkable, therefore, that Schiff comes to the BSO this week not only as a guest soloist in two of Bach's keyboard concertos, but also as a conductor in a program that includes Cantata No. 82 and the Orchestral Suite No. 1.

Is the pianist about to add to all of his other accomplishments a new career as a conductor?

"I'm not a conductor -- never will be," says a smiling Schiff, who is almost as boyishly good-looking at the age of 43 as he was when he came to fame in the late 1970s. "It's just that there are certain things -- Bach, first and foremost, but also Haydn symphonies and Mozart operas -- that I like to do on the podium. Playing the piano is demanding and challenging, and I expect that it will occupy me all my life."

Schiff occupies a special place among the great pianists of today. His phenomenal virtuosity, command of color and beauty of tone make him a favorite of piano aficionados, whose attitude to the ivories can only be compared to the relish with which opera fanatics savor the high C's of sopranos. But his intellect and his architectural grasp of the music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven have also made him a favorite of intellectuals. Last week, the six music critics of the New York Times listed their favorite recordings of the music of Schubert. Schnabel was the only other pianist mentioned, and even his name did not make every list as Schiff's did.

Despite Schiff's virtuosity, it was initially a little difficult to imagine how successful his recordings of the Bartok concertos would be. He is not a flashy player, and he has studiously avoided the music of such composers as Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Ravel. So it was something of a surprise last year when Schiff announced his intention of recording the Bartoks, the first two of which are generally reputed to be the most brilliantly percussive pieces in the standard concerto repertory. It came as an even greater shock when Schiff compared the concertos of Bartok to those of Mozart.

"Don't misunderstand me," Schiff says. "They are unbelievably demanding concertos -- physically, technically, instrumentally -- and I think the second is the hardest thing in the world to play. But they are not the kind of concertos Liszt or Rachmaninoff wrote. They are like the Mozarts in that the piano is integrated into the ensemble almost as if they were chamber music."

The proof is in the doing. And Schiff's recordings of the works with conductor Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra -- while they pack a mighty wallop when necessary -- do indeed make Bartok's music emerge not only with unprecedented clarity but also with unanticipated beauty.

The clarity is partly a result of the doggedness with which Schiff pursued a seating arrangement that accorded with the composer's desire to place the piano closer to the percussion and the winds. In the First Concerto, the pianist explains, the composer even specified preferred seating arrangements for the players. But until Fischer, every conductor with whom Schiff worked ignored Bartok's explicit instructions as well as the pianist's pleas to change the conventional orchestral seating arrangements.

"If the distance from the pianist to the percussionist and the wind players is too great, they don't hear a note that I'm playing, and the lid of the piano gets in the way as well," Schiff says.

But if the emphasis on clarity comes from the pianist's careful perusal of the scores as well as of Bartok's written instructions, the pursuit of beauty comes from Schiff's study of Bartok's own performing style as it is represented on the composer's own recordings -- not just of his own music, but also that of Liszt, Scarlatti, Debussy and others.

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