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Pianist? Conductor? Try Communicator

With a modesty that belies passion, Andras Schiff plans to lead the Philharmonic from behind his keyboard.

November 12, 2000|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | Justin Davidson is the chief classical and culture writer at large at Newsday

NEW YORK — The pianist Andras Schiff appears to be the incarnation of diffidence. A small, soft man with a pink flush in his cheek and a thinning aureole of curls, Schiff could be mistaken for the bookish curate of a country church.

He speaks genteel, Hungarian-accented English, which he delivers in a series of shy sighs. As he talks, he doles out thin smiles and clutches to his lap a gray woolen lump that only later reveals itself to be a threadbare cardigan. Every once in a while he glances down, for reassurance, perhaps, at the volumes fastidiously arranged on the coffee table: biographies of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and austerely jacketed novels in German and Hungarian. Schiff exudes a certain fragility, as if he needs the plush quiet of this sunlight-colored Manhattan hotel room to protect him from the messiness of the world.

Yet he is a musician who easily hold the stage of Carnegie Hall alone, who nourishes his self-confidence not with therapeutic teaspoons of accomplishment, but with grand-scale projects. He likes to present the music of his favorite composers in comprehensive marathons--all the Schubert sonatas, all the Mozart sonatas, the Bartok concertos, the Beethoven concertos.

This week he arrives in Southern California fresh from a six-concert cycle of Bach's major keyboard work in New York. Bach died 250 years ago this year, and to many people there seems to be something divinely ordained in the fact that his milestones are synchronized with the Western calendar's. To Schiff, though, "every year is a Bach year," and his concentrated immersion into the keyboard music--he plays the "Goldberg" Variations in Orange County on Monday--is an example of his deep-seated taste for comprehensiveness.

It's a sentiment he shares with Bach himself. Schiff's daily regimen begins with an hour or so of Bach at the piano, and his whole existence is permeated by the music's rigorous exhilaration. "When I start the morning with Bach, the rhythm of my life is driven by Bach's music," the pianist said in a separate interview earlier this year. "I believe in the rhythmical life, one that has freedom but also discipline."

His reputation rests on those twin pillars of spontaneity and structure. His style is a collection of negative virtues, a principled avoidance of extremes and idiosyncrasies. He expresses his artistic vision as a series of pointed demurrals: He does not approve of attention-getting bravura, takes a flexible approach to the pieties of historical authenticity, and has no patience for archly poetic phrasing. "There is a certain soloist's rubato that I don't agree with, when it isn't organic. It has to be done with poise and very good taste. Otherwise it's anarchistic."

Schiff's desire to master all the facets of a musical problem has naturally led him to take up the baton. Beginning Thursday, he conducts himself and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program that includes Bach, Haydn and Beethoven's Fifth Concerto, the "Emperor"--even though he is not really a conductor, he says, "just a musician who communicates."

He is, in any case, following the example of Mozart and all the soloists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, who conducted concertos from the piano. It's an approach he feels strongly about, though in explaining why, he begins, characteristically, with a reason not to do it.

"The disadvantage is that I have to remove the lid of the piano, so the audience does not get the same focused sound. But the advantages are colossal. The minute I sit face to face with the orchestra, they begin to listen and it becomes more like chamber music. I don't want them to accompany me, I want partners."

Conducting began to emerge as a profession during Beethoven's lifetime, in the first quarter of the 19th century, and Schiff recognizes that he is on the edge of appropriateness in leading Beethoven's last two concertos, Nos. 4 and 5, from the keyboard. There is, for example, the slow movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto, in which a grave, martial figure in the strings is pitted against the piano's radiant hymn. "You cannot be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the same time," Schiff acknowledges. "But I solve that one by having the concertmaster do it, I don't conduct at all."

Then there is the devilishly delicate transition between the second and third movements of the Fifth Concerto. A few tolling, quiet pizzicatos in the strings usher in a long, breathless moment before a sprightly rondo tears loose. "It must have this hushed silence, this feeling that something incredible is going to happen," Schiff says. "It's hard even for a conductor to get it right."

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