Awarded a Knighthood for Services to Music by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in the 2014 Birthday Honours, Hungarian Sir Andras Schiff is a world-renowned and critically acclaimed pianist, conductor, pedagogue and lecturer. His Piano Masterclass, held on the afternoon of Day 3 of the Performer(‘) Present Symposium, drew a packed hall. It was indeed a privilege to be among the observers, and it must have been an unforgettable experience for the three students who played Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.
Beethoven : Sonata No 28 in A major, Op 101
I. Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung: Allegretto, ma non troppo
II. Lebhaft, marschmasig: Vivace all marcia
Sir Schiff’s first comments about the Year 4 students’ playing was “Very good, Very very good” and felt that “the problem is the second movement is too beautiful”. So he decided to work on this movement first. He implored the student to think of this movement as a painting and asked her what a marsch is, before explaining that it’s military but had a different meaning in Beethoven’s time. On the need to concentrate on the sharpness of the small notes (for eg a semiquaver should not be played like one of a triplet of quavers), he likened it to parachuting from the air, and promptly proceeded to demonstrate how to sit down and breathe before playing. He emphasised on the need for the notes to sound, and they are not there just to make a noise. The bass is the foundation but a balance must be found in the right hand, especially since the little finger is the weakest. The strength would come from the rhythm.
There is also humour (eg the trills) which is not normally associated with Beethoven. The tonality here is important. It is in F major, while the sonata is in A Major so the relationship must be explored. Also, the music then moves to B-flat Major, which is yet another relationship. Other details to be observed include the importance of phrasing (“Think of the cello”), articulation (especially the semiquavers), dynamics (“When Beethoven writes p, it’s not pp; even when it’s ff, sing it”) and tempo (“Beethoven didn’t write a new tempo”).
A phrase that was oft repeated was “Just playing what is on the page is not music“. Sir Schiff demonstrated by playing passages of beautiful cantabile while articulating the notes. He also mentioned more than once, “Don’t worry about the metronome, because a human being is a breathing creature. If you need to take a breath and lose a hair of a second, so what?” He advocated playing short notes after a long one (eg a pair of semiquavers after a dotted crotchet) like a pendulum, comparing it to the nursery rhyme Are You Sleeping.
A new figure (eg in the left hand at b 70) is another concept of breathing. Within the big line, great care must be taken with the small articulation: it’s better that the phrasing of the two voices be independent. The three-bar thrill adds colour to the music, as do the bass (from b 84) which gives the impression of life from far away.
It is only at this point that Sir Schiff went back to the first movement. What is unusual here is that it is improvisatory (like Schumann later) and magical. The opening expresses dedication (“Empfindung” refers to an innermost feeling that is cosy and poetic) and is somewhat lively; it is a deepest feeling that is untranslatable. (“The closest is to imagine a poem.”)
Tempo, meter and rhythm are important here: what happens at the pause? What does 6/8 time mean? The rhythm of a quaver following a crotchet should be highlighted. Sir Schiff proceeded to demonstrate all these by playing the entire passage.
In the Development section, Sir Schiff reminded the student not to play slower at p passages and to note that small motifs are Beethoven’s technique of composition and that the art of the return to the Recapitulation is not shortening it. Hence the melody (from b 80) is endless and care must be taken on balancing the 9 notes between 2 hands, not playing loudly, but with most weight from the upper arms and shoulders for gravity until the epilogue which is the Coda (at b 90).
Schubert : Sonata in A Minor, D.537
I. Allegro ma non troppo
After listening to this Year 2 student play, Sir Schiff’s first remark was “You should not forget to dance!” and he proceeded to demonstrate on the piano how the music should dance. This piece is like dream vs reality; the rhythmic figure is like “Am—sterdam”, and where there is dissonance, the pianist must feel the tension (eg chords in b. 3, 8 & 13). It was such a joy watching Sir Schiff playing (b.14-20) – his fingers were literally dancing on the keyboard! He went on to explain how the notes at b.20-26 should sound like the village bell (especially not slowing down at b.26) and how the repeated F’s (staccato quavers) in the bass (b.28-31) are like heartbeats, while the right hand flows. It is important to listen and not play on automatic pilot! (For eg, by taking a llittle time at places marked with accents.)
One of the cliches in piano playing is that the two hands are always together. It should not be so together because it’s not how the physiques are. One has to play transparently. Of coure, this will get the student in trouble with teachers, critics, jury and competitors but it doesn’t matter. (After all, Sir Schiff attracted attention in the spring of 2011 because of his oppostition to the alarming political developments in Hungary, and in view of the ensuing attackes on him from some Hungarian Nationalilsts decided not to perform again in his home country!)
The liebe (German for song) in b. 61-64 denotes love. Bar 65 is a violent wake-up: it is forceful, so it will not be played so together (“like karate chop“) because it’s not nice. Sir Schiff again demonstrated and referred to the recordings of Bela Bartok on how not to play two hand together. To be too precise (meaning, too German) is merely playing what’s on the paper. The gestures , such as exclamation and passages such as those in b.85-90 should be thought of like strokes of the bow on the viola – gently pulling it, with cantabile in the right hand (where the little finger has to sing) and articulating the staccato triplet of quavers in the left hand. From the most magical moment (an A minor chord in A-flat major) till b.105, Beethoven becomes a little generous. Sir Schiff demonstrated by playing the passage while explaining the differences between the styles of Vienna and Hanover : both speak German but there are differences in dialect and accent; one would call the other sloppy. It’s very subtle and not so proper.
There are also light moments during the class, such as when Sir Schiff (after demonstrating how to let the fingers fly over the keyboard in an arpeggic passage of demi-hemi-semiquavers) asked the student, “What’s so difficult about that?” This passage comes just before the Coda in b.175. As is typical of Schubert, the ending is very sad, with a lot of feeling.
Schumann : Fantassie, Op 17
I. Durchus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen
As is often the case, the most challenging piece of the day is this piece that is so beautiful that it has to be kept together and can’t be let to go to pieces. The Year 4 student chosen to play this was definitely up to the challenge.
The tempo marking of fantastisch means ‘fantastically’. Though it is in Sonata Form, the middle section has a legend, and it has a Coda. It is in C Major, but the first time there’s a C Major chord in root position is on the last of the 15 pages! Pedalling is necessary here despite the rapidity in the bass because the left hand quavers should not be too clear throughout. Vorzutragen indicates it’s a colourful dream. When Schumann writes a little ritardando, it means a tempo next. The pianist has to be organised (“This is not a fantasy“). There shouldn’t be too much ritardando because it loses momentum. The pianist “has to raise her blood pressure” as the music soars: the acciacaturas must be sharper, and the double dotted quavers must be given emphasis with a short demisemiquaver that follows, like a “painter with a big brush”. There is no democracy here; some notes are more important than the others. The bass is important and must be shaped.
It was a sight to behold when Sir Schiff hummed, conducted, gestured and made comments like “Good”, “Move” during the student’s accomplished playing! His fingers glided over the keyboard ever so smoothly when he demonstrated passages that are sentimental or colourful.
Schumann is known to be crazy as he had a split personality, so his music is a mixture of lyricism, masculinity and feminity. Again, Sir Schiff played a long passage to show the dialogue taking place – carressing the keys with calmness before going back to the fiery passage. Then he expects the student to do the same, telling her that she “must play the gentler passage with feelings of I Love You, You Love Me”!
The tempo of Im lebbaften is lovely. Again, Sir Schiff played to demonstrate the syncopated passage. Watching him, I was lost in the moment. Schumann is telling us something in the section marked Im Legenden – it is something from the olden times, like a legend. (Eg “Once upon a time, there was a princess…”) We need to imagine a romantic time in the medieval ages where there were no smart phones etc. While playing this passage, Sir Schiff narrated: “Once upon a time, there was a king and he had three daughters…” and went on to explain how to change from an Ancient mood to a Bartok sound (by emphasising the octaves). He demonstrated and played on the piano a lot and it was such a joyful experience watching as he continued, “He’s telling the story and then the poet speaks; then comes a mysterious section and a battle scene; the princess had been abducted! And the young prince is coming to save her. But it ends in a tragedy… But courage returns,” and Sir Schiff played passionately again.
As this piece was dedicated to Franz Liszt, a lot of Liszt harmony was used. Apparently Sir Schiff loves this piece very much and he played a section with the student on a second piano until he decided to move over to her piano to show her how to play “simpler”! In another section, he explained to the student “don’t play the bar line” by demonstrating. Towards the end of the Adagio section, he explained why it “Cannot be too slow, otherwise you cannot sing it” and played till the end of the piece. There was a very long applause for Sir Schiff. I hope he would return to conduct more piano masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh COnservatory of Music.