Pianist Yulia Chaplina starts her series of interviews “Musicians in Isolation”. 
Her first interviewee is the true legend of piano playing, the magnificent Sir András Schiff.

 Sir András, I have known you for years and always was under the impression that concerts and audiences are not essential to the satisfaction you get from being a musician. I can imagine you are very happy on your own and just with the piano. Is the isolation for you a blessing or a curse?

It’s not true. A curse is a very strong word indeed but I bitterly miss concerts and audiences. Of course these are unprecedented times and we are experiencing great tragedies, the worst is still to come, not just because of the pandemic crisis but also ‎for the tens of millions of people who will have lost their jobs,their living,their very existence.

– Many concert halls have started performances without an audience. Will you consider this format for the remaining future performances this year?

It’s not out of the question. Playing in an empty concert hall can be a wonderful experience but it’s a  rather ‎solitary one. We’ll play for an imaginary audience. And nobody coughs…

– What are your thoughts on the future of live concerts? Do you think people will be cautious to attend live concerts for a long time? Has this pandemic changed the performing art world forever or will there be a return to “normal”?

I’m a born optimist but this time it’s easier to be pessimistic. As in the joke,what’s the difference between a pessimist and an optimist? The pessimist is just like the optimist but better informed. Or let’s just be called realists. I’m a great believer of live music. Also of live theatre. We can listen to recordings at home, in great comfort, in peace and quiet, yet it’s a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’. It’s like looking at the photo of a beloved person,as opposed to seeing her or him in real life. A live performance is always unique,unrepeatable. When we play a great piece of music it’ll be different every single time. Only on the recording is it  always the same. Although even that depends on the equipment,of the acoustics of the room and our mood. Then let’s consider the communal experience. There is something wonderful in sharing art with others. In a live conce‎rt there are three elements,the composers,the performers and the listeners. The performers are the messengers between the other two. Together we form a community. At least for a couple of hours. We are only a few months into this nightmare but there is already so much fear, panic and hysteria around us that people are afraid to do anything. We are being told to stay at home, especially older people. Classical audiences tend to be older-albeit  not in Asia-so how shall we get them back to concert halls? With social distancing and idiotic instructions that tell us how far the musicians are allowed to sit from each other, and also for member‎s of the audience, this will frustrate and alienate us further. When playing chamber music or in an orchestra we know that the closer we sit together the better we’ll be able to communicate, to blend. So I very much wish that after the pandemic we could return to the previous norms. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it.

– Do you listen to any of the live concerts online? What is your feeling towards the informal home streaming many musicians turn to?

‎There is a treasury of  wonderful archive material on Youtube and I do watch and listen to those recordings. Of course the sound is very bad and one has to accept these compromises. As for home streaming,let’s be cautious. In times like these it’s tempting to sacrifice quality for the sake of “saving the arts”. Elitist has become a dirty word but there should be no compromise in maintaining artistic standards.

– I know it is very uneasy to make any assumptions, but do you think younger people will appreciate live concerts more or less after the pandemic? Will the high level of online streaming result in more younger audiences in the concert halls?

As I said before, in Asian countries like South Korea and China the audience mostly consists of ‎young people. Apparently there is a huge interest for Western classical music. The number of children studying piano is astonishing. So the key word is education,if music and the arts are in the families,in the school curriculum if they are high in the hierarchy of values in a society then it will bring young people to concert halls. We can’t force them to come, it’s not compulsory.

– You mentioned in one of your previous interviews that you don’t think audiences nowadays can tell the difference between a poor and really outstanding performance. Do you feel that online streaming will make this situation worse or better?

I wrote this ironically in an essay on Schumann and I’m sorry if I’ve offended people with it,I apologize. One should not generalize but there is some truth in this remark. With  more and more people listening to great music,we’re also losing the quality. In Europe a few generations ago it was “normal” for young persons to take music lessons.Not for ‎becoming professional musicians  but because it was part of a decent education,like learning languages or taking ballet classes. When these people grew up and became doctors,lawyers or accountants they would get together on a Sunday afternoon at someone’s home to play Beethoven string quartets.Maybe not very well but it doesn’t matter. And when they went to a concert they really knew what they were listening to. With today’s internet, twitter,facebook generation this is no longer the case.
One of the big problems with streaming is the poor quality  ‎of sound. This is serious and very misleading. Anyway I find that in our listening habits we don’t pay enough attention to it. Even very fine recordings can’t capture the tonal details and nuances of singers and instrumentalists. Dynamics tend to be compressed,towards the middle. Instead of hearing thousands of colours we are forced to reduce the scale. I’m convinced that a person with a good pair of ears sitting in a good seat in a great concert hall hears many more colours and details than the most refined microphone. Therefore let’s welcome recordings and streaming but let’s admit it: we can’t wait to go back to live concerts.

– What do you think about online teaching? I know you teach at Barenboim’s Academy, have you done any online tuition? Do you see it as a viable option for the time being or a waste of time? ‎To me this is out of the question. And mainly because of the sound. Mine is probably an outdated opinion but teaching-like eating,drinking and a few other things-has to be done in real life.

– I found I can’t work on any dramatic music (most of the Russian music is like that actually) and I am turning more and more to Bach, Haydn and Schubert in particular at the moment. Do you find yourself drawn to certain pieces at the moment? Do you have any pieces that ease your anxiety?

‎There are many works of Bach,Haydn, Mozart and Schubert that are very dramatic indeed. And many Russian ones that are tender and lyrical. For me  the two composers that are most relevant in these terrible times are Bach and Beethoven. Bach for his spirituality, the perfect equilibrium of emotion and intellect and Beethoven for his universal message, being one of us human beings-the best of us- who has gone through so much and yet has managed to find hope and faith, his music always looks upwards.

– Would you mind sharing the books you are reading at the moment (and maybe any online productions if any)? Would you mind sharing 3-5 of your favourite books, recordings?

Not being at home I truly miss my library. Reading is my favourite passing time occupation. Here I am reading Japanese novels in English translation. War and Peace,Anna Karenina by Tolstoy,The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, The Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. But there are hundreds of others.

– Do you have any special routine at the moment?

My wife and I are in Japan and that’s very lucky. We also have a state of emergency but there is no lockdown. We are staying in a nice house in Kamakura near the sea and there is a Bösendorfer piano at my disposal. In the morning I play Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and try to learn the Debussy Préludes and Études. Then I go for long walks, read, write and correspond. There is also good food and even some wine.

– Do you like performing for the Russian audiences? There is no place in this world where I love to perform like in Russia. People listen to the music with their hearts,not only with their brains. I’m scheduled to perform both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier in November2020 in Moscow and in St.Petersburg and I pray to God that they won’t be cancelled.

Sir András, thank you so much for your answers. I can not wait to hear your wonderful playing in real life again.