“You will never, ever hear greater piano playing,” said Dame Fanny Waterman, DBE, as she stood on the stage of the resplendently-refurbished Royal Hall in Harrogate. Few of us in the audience would have disagreed, not just because she is the respected oracle on these matters but because she was referring to the pianist who had just astonished us with his versions of Schubert’s Sonata in G Major and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations – András Schiff.

She was there not just to listen to Schiff but to be presented with Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society by John Gilhooley, Director of the Wigmore Hall and the new RPS chairman. Honorary Membership is awarded to musicians who have contributed outstanding services to music, and since 1826, when the first proud recipient was Carl Maria von Weber, it has been awarded fewer than 130 times. Dame Fanny is joint founder with Marion Harewood of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, of which Schiff was a winner.

1826 was also the year when Schubert composed the Sonata in G Major, which is usually rated as one of his finest instrumental works, dominated by a serenely peaceful mood, captured perfectly by Schiff from the opening bars of the first movement. The tempo which he determines is never draggingly slow, and when he reaches the stormy or climactic moments, his touch is magical. All the contrasts are emphasised clearly as the dreamily rippling stream reaches rapids, or flows over rocks. The beautiful melody of the second movement was particularly impressive, and the gentle subtlety of the finale was deeply satisfying.

The Variations on a waltz by Diabelli were the result of Beethoven’s second thoughts after he had received a charity request from music publisher Anton Diabelli in 1819. Diabelli had written a simple theme, which he had circulated to the leading composers of the day (including Schubert), inviting them to contribute variations, hoping to publish all of them together to raise funds for the families of soldiers killed in recent conflicts. Beethoven, living in poverty, was not motivated to respond at first, but eventually wrote thirty-three in an adventurous work which lasts for just under an hour. It is demanding, concentrated and ‘intellectual’ – so who better than Schiff, who is a most approachable schoolmaster, to deliver some advanced Beethoven studies to us? To employ a much used metaphor, it is a high peak in the Himalayas, an Everest, so Schiff is Hillary and Tenzing combined. He balances across every crevasse, negotiates every obstacle and climbs summits with no need for extra oxygen, with that seeming effortlessness which defines him as the man described by Dame Fanny.

Beethoven lifts off from Diabelli’s commonplace original in a number of ways, so that sometimes it is barely recognisable and sometimes just about pulverised – and his sense of humour is widely recognised, a fact which Schiff addresses delightfully when the waltz is presented as a heavily-accented and pompous march, or when it is parodied, as in Variation 15, where it sounds strangely majestic. The whole thing could be described as a satire, but this would be misleading, because the humour is the not the main element, even though it is sometimes picked out to claim that poor Ludwig did not spend all his final days in absolute gloom.

There are references to Bach throughout, for example in Variation 24 (Fughetta), which in Schiff’s version acquired a distinctly liturgical feel, as if it was a component of a lost Mass. The penultimate peak, close to ethereal regions, is reached with the triple fugue of Variation 32: Schiff’s treatment of the climax of this, with its dramatic loud chord and all-encompassing arpeggios was absolutely gripping.

Schiff brought us back from all the agitation with the long chords of the final minuet, as if we were gazing at turbulence below, through the eyes of a figure in a romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Then it was time for the standing ovation.