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Going Jovially Into That Good Night

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/30/2015 -  & November 28, 2015 (Tel Aviv)
Josef Haydn: Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob XVI:52
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Opus 111
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata in D, K. 576
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960

Sir András Schiff (Pianist)

Sir. A Schiff (© Sheila Rock)

At an age when most great artists are reaching their apex, Sir András Schiff has come to the end.

No, not the end of his career. But the end of three concerts over the past year exploring the final piano sonatas of the three Classical Era’s most eminent composers. Prior to this concert, Sir András had played the penultimate and antepenultimate works of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. Here, he reached the ultimate–and just for the hell of it, threw in Robert Schumann’s (probable) final work as well for an encore.

Sir András’ concert last night lasted 45 minutes longer than the usual two-hour stretch. But nobody was complaining. For while the great Hungarian-British pianist is sometimes quirky, he never compromises his artistic goals. Never have I heard Sir András gallop through an Allegro, because he could do it at speed. Nor does he lavish extra attention on a phrase because it is sheerly beautiful. Nor does he play music because it is the classy thing to do. Like Uchida, Sir András masters the complete work of a composer (like J.S. Bach), in order to understand any single piece within its context.

Not that the mastery of these “final” piano pieces is especially interesting–except in a journalistic sense. If we learned anything from last night, it is that artists “never go gentle into that good night.” These might not have been their final musical works, but they were written within a year or so of death. Yet not once do we feel their mortality.

Nowhere could that be truer than in the Josef Haydn’s final piano sonata. He may have been feted in England, but that never went to his head. Instead, he experimented with the new Broadwood piano–and that testing lent itself to the last sonata. A sonata whose outward classical structure has to be madness for any great pianist.

Sir András started with that trumpetty arpeggio, but then his fingers dazzled over those infernal (and seemingly endless) runs. Haydn was a trickster, though. Those exercises were hiding some truly strange modulations, and Sir András almost tenderly changed keys. He barely waited a second before going into the second movement (down a half-note from the first!) and played the ending not with zing and flash, but like a delicious game for his fingers.

This could have been an opener for Beethoven C Minor. But a) Haydn stands by itself; and b) nothing can “introduce” Beethoven’s Opus 111. As one would expect, the first movement was heavy, but rarely percussive. Yet it was the Arietta which–like the later Schubert–made this concert so memorable. Beethoven gave every possible emotion to this second movement, but Schiff made it a single piece of poetry. As in the Schubert, Beethoven’s trills are not interludes but integral parts of the movement, and Sir András is a master, especially on his favorite, the Bösendorfer piiano

Sir András has an almost inhuman concentration when necessary–and such necessity is in everything he plays, Even the Mozart final sonata, perhaps not his greatest, perhaps written for an amateur pianist, was lyric, perfect, a jewel. Sir András played without any idiosyncrasies, and let the fissures of that jewel do their own radiation.

The final work was Schubert’s final sonata, a work so tremendous that Alex Ross devoted an entire article to the Schiff performance in this week’s New Yorker, I purposely didn’t read it in detail, but–unfortunately–read that Sir András thinks of the sonata now as a paean to the sea. Which, while listening to it was a paean in the butt, since that image was predominant in my mind.

Yet this was still secondary to the playing itself. What he did in that first movement, that most mysterious, wondrous enormous movement, was to shun from telling a story. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven told their own stories, if nothing else than through construction. Schubert’s opening was, yes, exposition, repeat (and oh, how thrilled one is to hear those orphic measures leading to the repeat, which some malevolent pianists refuse to take), development and back again. What Sir András did was shun any excess emotion. The dissonances were played down, the fragmentary musical shouts were like single out-of-place rocks in a Japanese garden.

Nor did he stray from that path in the second movement. We all usually wait for the surprising modulation toward the end. But Sir András played it with such serenity that the movement stood on its own terms.

The third movement was pure fun. Not scherzo fun, but simply bumping, almost rustic fun. Rather than accenting those right hand gymnastics, he let us hear the naive tonic-dominant simplicity of the left hand, as if to say, “What could be more unprepossessing than a little naive humor?”

And while nothing can measure up to the first two movements, the finale was played with that same naive pleasure, that same unadorned joy. Nor did Sir András shun that same joy from the packed-house audience. Rather than play a simple encore, he continued with a work which I had never heard, and which even a professional pianist in the audience was partly ignorant. He knew it was Schumann (it sounded a bit more complex than Schubert, not as complicated as Brahms), and those variations were probably his final works, written in the asylum where he died.

After that, it was one more encore: the theme from Bach’s ”Goldberg” Variations. Great stuff–but would this wonderful pianist play all 30 variations??

No, Sir András left it at the simple theme. But had he tackled another hour, nobody would have strolled out of Carnegie. The usual early-leavers have a mythical train or plane to catch. Last night, that would have been a petty excuse for not listening to as much of Sir András Schiff as possible.

Harry Rolnick



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