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The art of listening

The best musicians have special powers of listening, as pianist András Schiff demonstrated in a masterclass last week

How can you tell if someone is listening? I mean really listening. Not semi-listening while they work out what to say next. Not mind-made-up listening. Not with their ears in the room but their thoughts on lunch. But genuine, in-the-moment, every-sense-primed, cold-bloodedly objective listening. What does it look like?

After all, surely, to be a musician this is the number one skill you need. It doesn’t matter if you can move your hands like the wind, memorise intricate scores and do Schenkerian analysis on late Beethoven quartets in your sleep. If you can’t listen to yourself and to your colleagues carefully, objectively and constructively, you’ll never get anywhere. Or at least, you don’t deserve to get anywhere. Associating what you hear with what you image in your head and to what you do with your hands is secondary to perceiving what is actually coming out of your instrument in the first place.

I think I know what the raw act of listening looks like now, at least. At last Sunday’s ChamberStudio (for whom I've written some articles) masterclass András Schiff embodied it. You couldn’t actually see his ears wagging, but almost. His stillness, the alertness of his posture, the inwardness of his eyes, all belied his focus on the sounds being made by the groups performing: the Isimsiz Piano Trio, Busch Ensemble and Navarra Quartet. And of course, this was followed by the insights he offered them, which were always acute, specific, constructive, and generous, if sometimes tempered with an unconscious grimace or a little droll humour. The intensity of this focus was constant though, and the groups responded quickly to his feedback – these are all professional groups, so they know what they’re doing – but even so, you could see their listening focus drop just occasionally, whereas Schiff’s never waivered.

Beyond all the practical and musical insight that Schiff offered these players and the audience, of which some of the more general points are listed below, the over-riding lesson he exemplified was of this essential quality. It’s not easy – it’s constant and exhausting (we all needed the breaks between performances) – but it makes Schiff the musician he is, and one of the finest in the world today.

Trio Isimsiz: Piano Trio op.97, ‘Archduke’

‘What is the character of the piece?’

– ‘Generous, rich, giving, proud.’

‘So concentrate on the generosity. Take a deep breath. Think of the landscape.’

‘With Beethoven piano doesn’t mean soft – it’s a speaking voice.’

‘For the piano chords, think of Schubert.’

On ornamentation: ‘You have to make sure of what is important. Not everything is equally important. It is a modern notion, that everybody is equal, that every note is equal. It’s not.’

On string intonation: ‘When playing with the piano you try to play in tune with the piano, but the piano is always wrong. You have to follow your expressive intention. Don’t worry about the piano. I don’t notice the particularity of your intervals.’

‘There are a hundred sorts of trills. You don’t have to sound like telephone bells.’

‘Can you do something with your bow that’s a little curved? It’s too straight. Because when you play with the piano, it diminuendos instantly. We can’t sustain. You can.’

‘Beethoven is a composer who doesn’t want to make life easy for us. It sounds too easy. Reach for it.’

‘Even the good editions change Beethoven’s marking. In his manuscripts you never see dots. Only wedges, except under a slur.’

‘There are lots of things we can’t do on the piano that string can do. One advantage is polyphony. We can play five, six or eight voices, but you have to voice them carefully. None are equal, even in a G major chord.’

‘It’s a very intimate, lyrical piece, but sometimes it’s very symphonic. Don’t rush – it’s not going to be boring.’

‘It would be lovely not to hear the barlines. I hear cages. Let’s liberate ourselves from the cages.’

‘Let’s design the topography of this landscape. Within the piano there are hills and valleys, but what you play is flat, and there’s not a tree in sight.’

‘The theme is very different when it comes in the subdominant.’

Busch Ensemble: Schubert Piano Trio No.2

‘It has to have the shape of an arch. The harmony goes to the third bar. In the third bar play the crotchet more tenuto.’

‘Listen to the harmonies. What is consonant? What is dissonant? The augmented 6th chord is heavier than the resolution.’

András Schiff coaches the Busch Ensemble: photo Marc Gascoigne

To the pianist: ‘You are wonderful, but you are too kind to the strings here. Because what you have is not unimportant. You are the brook, the water. Pedal more with your hands.’

‘This is too precise. This is not an 1/8th note but a 1/9th note.’

‘It was better before. That’s my fault.’

‘I want it to speak. Not sing, but speak.’

‘When you have the hemiolas, make a distinction between the groups of two and three.’

‘The first four bars are a statement but bars five and six are questions. You have to play more rhetorically. The two questions have to be more hesitant.’

‘The trills have to sound more dangerous. This is an earthquake, not a trill.’

‘Don’t try to help Schubert here. It’s static, but we’ve had so much trauma before. Now it’s dreamy.’

‘Switch off all the metronomes here. I hear beats rather than four bars or even eight bars.’

‘The piano left hand is like a double bass pizzicato here and then goes to arco.’

‘There is a close relationship with his Unfinished Symphony, which I didn’t consider before today.’

‘Save the dynamics so that it grows, like a Bruckner symphony.’

‘Change the colour with the minor. Even if the cello stays on the same note, when the violin changes to the minor, the cello has to react to it.’

Navarra Quartet: Beethoven String Quartet no.14 op.131

On judging tempo changes between variations: ‘Who am I to say? I usually don’t mind, but I would like a little more proportional relationship. The Allegretto and the Adagio non troppo have to be in proportion. Andante is a walking pace but the Andante ma non troppo is more moderate, not too flowing. There needs to be a connection.’

‘It’s dolce, but it’s a hymn. There’s something very solemn about it.’

‘In Beethoven we often have that he makes a crescendo and then a subito piano. Don’t fall into the subito piano. The listener needs time to get it.’

‘It doesn’t have to be together. Don’t worry.’

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