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.
Schiff made his debut in Vienna in 1971 at the age of 20 and played with the major orchestras of Europe under such great conductors as Bernard Haitink, Sergiu Celibidache, Colin Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kurt Masur, Michael Gielen, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and Claudio Abbado. He also appeared at the major festivals and concert venues of the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Meanwhile, he continued in conducting studies with Hans Swarowsky, one of the great conducting teachers of the time.
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.
He made his professional debut as a conductor in 1986. He conducted several leading orchestras of the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Oslo Philharmonic, the Philharmonia (London), and the Dresden State Orchestra. He began conducting opera at the Theatre le Monnaie in Brussels with The Magic Flute in December 1992, Fidelio in September 1993, and The Flying Dutchman in the Bern Stadttheater in 1994. He was the principal guest conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie from 1990 through 1992 and was artistic director of the Northern Sinfonia (in England) in 1990-1996. He was principal conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic from 1996 to 1999.
In 1996 he was appointed principal conductor of the Musikkollegium Winterthur, and in 1998 became principal guest conductor of the South German Radio (SDR) Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart.