Sir Andras Schiff is the latest in a succession of the world’s most illustrious musicians giving masterclasses in Melbourne this year. All have been fascinating and illuminating, but none more so than the one given by the great Hungarian pianist.
“Unforeseen circumstances” saw the venue being changed at short notice from the Australian National Academy of Music’s home of South Melbourne Town Hall to the Melbourne Recital Centre – a sign of excellent cooperation between Musica Viva and ANAM, the organisers of the event, and the MRC. It was also an opportunity for the master to become acquainted with the acoustic assets of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, which he both praised and used as a teaching tool.
Three young pianists were the beneficiaries of Schiff’s vast experience. All three, who had considerable performing experience and had collected many distinctions and awards, chose a work from the Romantic repertoire: Jeremy So (from Sydney) Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, op 13; Berta Brozgul (from Melbourne) Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no 18, op 3; and Adam McMillan (from Brisbane) Schubert’s Piano Sonata no 13.
Even by the end of the first session, I’m sure I was not alone in thinking that, if you had to choose, hearing this masterclass was almost preferable to hearing Schiff play a concert in Hamer Hall. Of course, the ideal would be to hear both, but you would have missed out on a great deal, including hearing his surprisingly attractive singing voice, if you just attended the concert. Not only did Schiff sing to illustrate a point, he had Jeremy So singing phrases too – which he managed unexpectedly well. The other two pianists were not obliged to sing but there was an emphasis on phrasing with the breath. Schiff also emphasized variation in colour, using separate hands and fingers to bring out different orchestral sonorities, which he partly illustrated by vocally impersonating a range of instruments.
When demonstrating a rippling passage in the Schubert sonata, he asked Adam McMillan whether he was familiar with the way Schubert characterizes a brook in Die Schone Mullerin. This was only one example of the kind of broad understanding of a composer’s work that should inform a performance. “Schubert brought the music into nature… out of the living-room… you have to feel the landscape… it’s too much indoors… breathe it so the listener knows it’s Spring flowers”. Imagery was an essential ingredient of Schiff’s teaching. At one point he described a passage in the Beethoven as sounding like Falstaff, gesturing the rotund belly.
In addition to advice on musical interpretation there was plenty of advice on techniques necessary to achieve desired effects: the use of the pedal; finger, hand and arm movements for touch; articulation that takes into account the properties of a particular acoustic (“the hall does not articulate itself”). I noticed one young member of the audience busily annotating the musical scores on his iPad, keen to make the most of an invaluable opportunity.
While there was insistence on following a composer’s instructions: “we are nothing… we are messengers”, the limitations of notation were also emphasized: “If we play the bar lines they become like prison bars of cells”. Even some mismatch between hands was encouraged, with an admission that some thought this old-fashioned. There was a certain humility in the way he encouraged his young pianists with a repeated “good… very good… beautiful…” and even “again – sorry”.
Perhaps the most emotionally arresting moments came when he played alongside his charges. Two pianos were placed side by side on the stage with the younger performer on the outside. Sometimes Schiff would demonstrate on the outer piano sometimes on the inner, sometimes with one hand, sometimes two. On many occasions he would play the left hand part while his pupil played the right, or vice versa.
When master and pupil played together as one, there seemed to be such a strong sense of kindred spirit and love of the music itself that the listener could only be immensely grateful that a pianist of Sir Andras Schiff’s stature was generous enough to devote nearly four hours to such intense and uplifting pedagogy.
Heather Leviston attended Sir Andras Schiff’s Masterclass at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 19, 2018