On Jan. 7, András Schiff sat alone on the stage of London’s Wigmore Hall, playing to an empty venue and a virtual audience he could not see. If he was fazed by the empty seats in the hall, he did not show it. Schiff is a musician whose refinement at the instrument is matched by the eloquence of his musical commentary, and he spoke about each work in the all-Bach recital casually yet with insights deriving from decades of study and performance.
“How can Bach say so much with so few notes in just over two minutes?” he observed of the F-minor Sinfonia. “You have almost all of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ [here].”
Toward the end of the recital it became clear that Schiff was preoccupied by more than musical matters. Before playing the Overture in the French Style, he noted that Bach was “a German composer but not nationalistic,” and that for all the references to national styles in the titles of his works — English and French Suites, the Italian Concerto — the word “Deutsch” appears nowhere in his oeuvre. He pointed out that the overture contains French, German, Spanish, and Scottish dances.
“We have here the perfect example of Europe,” he said. “Let’s not forget that. We should be proud of that.”
The remark, of course, was of more than musical relevance. In the past few years, Schiff has become more outspoken about the rise of far-right populism and the fate of Europe. He has been especially vocal in his criticisms of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of his home country, where he has not set foot for more than a decade in protest.
It was no accident that his comments about Bach as the cosmopolitan citizen of Europe came in one of London’s finest concert halls. Speaking by phone from his home in Basel a few weeks later, Schiff noted that the recital took place just six days after the United Kingdom’s European Union exit became operational.
“I find that Brexit is the single worst idea that has ever been implanted,” he said bluntly. As with Bach’s amalgamation of dance styles, “the beauty of Europe is that all these countries and nations contribute to it something invaluable. And they are also different, so they can keep their national identities. But together in a unity we are much stronger.”
Brexit, he went on, “weakened [Europe] very much. And I think that Britain has disqualified itself. It will become a second- or third-rate culture because of this, but they don’t want to admit it.”
For most of his career Schiff has been known almost exclusively for his command of the pianistic literature stretching from Bach through Brahms. But he’s adamant that a life in culture must not preclude attunement to the wider world. “We musicians and people in the arts, we should not be living in ivory towers,” he said during the interview. “We have to keep our eyes, our ears, our minds, and hearts open.”
Nor has his exalted stature in the music world spared him the misery so widely experienced during the pandemic. “Pretty awful,” was his answer to the question of how the previous year has been for him. He was in Japan when the March shutdowns hit, yet was still able to play for masked concertgoers. A few small, socially distanced concerts in Europe over the summer have been his only performances before live audiences. The Wigmore was his first livestream concert. Another recital — a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann that was recorded in Zürich on Dec. 20 — will be streamed to Celebrity Series of Boston audiences beginning Friday.
Yet Schiff admitted that it’s been hard to stay engaged, even as he acknowledged that others have had it much worse.
“It’s a very strange feeling that we are in good health, but we cannot really call it a life,” he said in a slightly weary voice. “It’s good to have the time, and probably we have been doing too much traveling before. But this is not a solution.
“It’s not just the lack of contact with people and with audiences,” he went on, “but the lack of motivation. How can I put it? It’s just really difficult to force yourself to even get out of bed.” While it’s been good to have time to explore new repertoire, “even for that, it’s difficult to find the adrenalin.”
The conversation brightened when it turned to his most recent release: Impeccably warm and fluent readings of Brahms’s clarinet sonatas (ECM), two autumnal masterpieces from the composer’s final years. Schiff’s partner is the clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann, with whom he has played for the last 15 years.
“We played these Brahms sonatas in concert several times, and we played almost everything else for clarinet and piano,” he said. “And we understood each other perfectly, because the secret of a good relationship in music is, the less you have to talk, the better.”
Between the two sonatas, Schiff plays a set of intermezzi composed for him by Widmann — atomized pieces that not only evoke the darkness and melancholy of Brahms’s musical language but contain audible references to the composer’s late piano works. It also constitutes a rare venture into contemporary music by a pianist normally content to remain within a resolutely traditional idiom.
Schiff admitted that “I may be too conservative. Very often I think I should be doing more [contemporary music]. But I’m just being realistic that I don’t want to do anything that I’m not convinced about just to be a good chap.”
Much closer to his core repertoire is a piece Schiff has been learning during his pandemic-induced downtime: “The Art of Fugue,” the imposing, treatise-like work that Bach left unfinished at his death, and for which he never specified an instrumentation. While it may seem surprising that a pianist so devoted to Bach had never performed the piece — as with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which Schiff did not play publicly until he had mastered all 32 of the composer’s sonatas — he felt unready to approach “The Art of Fugue” until this point in a career spent roaming through the composer’s works.
“This is the opus magnum, the crowning achievement,” Schiff said of Bach’s unfinished work. “He’s not just a composer; he’s like a scientist who gives himself a new task and tries to solve it at the maximum. And this is something [for which] I find you have to be familiar with his entire output. Not just fugues, but everything else.
“It is like the greatest book ever written, that shouldn’t be read,” he continued. “And yet, the greatest book should be read, somehow.”
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Available Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. $20. www.celebrityseries.org