After building a career as one of the finest cellists to emerge in the last quarter of the 20th century, Heinrich Schiff established himself as an important orchestra conductor. He began playing piano when he was six, and took up cello at the age of ten. His major teacher was André Navarra, with whom he shared the qualities of a lean, centered, yet singing tone and a lyrical approach to the instrument.
In the 1980s he began recording extensively. His set of complete Bach Suites won many recording prizes, and his performance of both Shostakovich concertos, with the composer's son Maxim Shostakovich conducting, won the Grand Prix du Disque and was found by the Stevenson Classical CD Guide to be the single classical compact disc in its survey that received the largest number of rave reviews from the English-speaking world's music critics. He won the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis for the Brahms Double Concerto, in which he partnered with Frank Peter Zimmermann. He recorded virtually all the principal works of the standard repertory and other works such as those of Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Witold Lutoslawski. This reflected his interest in music of his own time: he premiered works of Friedrich Cerha, Hans Werner Henze, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Ernst Krenek. He played the famous "Mara" Stradivarius cello made in 1711.