Those heavenly lengths...
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 845 – Four Impromptus, D. 935 – Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946 – Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
András Schiff (piano)
A. Schiff (© Jennifer Taylor)
Sir András Schiff returned to Carnegie Hall after a yearlong absence, this time bringing along a gargantuan program wholly devoted to Schubert. Not that Schubert was ever absent from Sir András’ programs: most recently he featured three of the late sonatas albeit in context of late works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But for this all-Schubert recital one had to go as far down memory lane as 1993, when in an historic seven-recital cycle he presented all of the piano sonatas at the 92 Street Y. That was also the last time that he played in New York both of the sonatas we’ve heard during his last recital. The design of his recital had an arc to it: it began and ended with one of the mature, symphonic-length sonatas – the very Beethovenian, somber one in A minor and the more pastoral G major sonata. Between we heard two sets of shorter works which differed perhaps in name but could easily be classified as impromptus.
Sir András chooses nowadays to use the Bösendorfer piano, especially when performing Schubert. A listener who has followed his career as keenly as this reviewer would remember his 1983 recital at the Met Museum, when the first half of the program, 13 Sonatas by Scarlatti, was performed on a Steinway and the Schubert Sonata, in the second half, on a Bösendorfer. These days the piano is positioned not on the axis of the auditorium but askew and slightly to the right of center, thus allowing the patrons on the right to have a full view of the keyboard. It also works well acoustically.
Though I hesitate to call Sir András the best Schubert interpreter of our time – as the saying goes, there are probably others equally good – no other names come to mind! In the past, some pianists, Alfred Brendel, for one, devoted much of their repertory to Schubert and there were/are others who over the years offered some excellent performances. We should not forget such masters as Uchida, Lupu, Goode, Sokolov or Perahia. Yet, in my opinion, none of them inhabits Schubert’s world and speaks his language as comfortably as Schiff does. I guess the major difference between the fine artists listed above and Sir András is that he never lets us forgets Schubert’s music is suffused as much with song as with dance. This seems to me the reason Sir András is one of the very few pianists who catches the proper temperament and spirit of Schubert scores.
As an example, the A minor Sonata has a rhythmic pattern of repeated notes which appears both as a melodic figure and as accompaniment. The variation of the figure appears later not only in the opening movement but throughout the work. As mentioned, this sonata in scope and form may be compared to the greatest of Beethoven sonatas. Now, this figure can sound deadly when played evenly (i.e.: as written) but takes on character of its own when played with the feeling of a dance. The favorite Schubert pattern of “long short-short long long” under Schiff’s fingers dances and moves forward. The same might be said about a similar and also favorite figure of “long short-short-short-short” we hear in the scherzo of the Sonata in G major (but also in Schubert’s Trio in E flat). The short notes are always propulsive, lively and lilting. And dancing.
One can also make a general observation about the matter of tempi Schiff adopts: I feel here he follows a simple “rule-of-thumb” exercised by such masters as Kempff and Horszowski, who assumed that Adagios should not be too slow, Andantes should move at a walking pace and Allegros should not be too fast. Yes, a very simple rule, yet one that finds surprisingly few followers. This time, throughout the recital I felt a sense of propulsion, momentum, a move forward akin to that legendary echt-Schubertian Artur Schnabel. Even the space between the movements was kept to a bare minimum. That forward motion worked marvelously, for example, in the first movement of the Sonata in G major which sometimes can drag mercilessly (for fear of offending a large segment of pianophiles, I will omit celebrated names). Did I mention the influence of song? Well, a question to all those who find “metaphysical Schubert” attractive: how slowly can you realistically sing such a line? How do you think Schubert’s piano would sustain such a slow tempo? Those are questions that some performers should ask themselves. Thus the aspect of singing finds in Schiff a great exponent; but as any good singer knows, one should also differentiate between full-throat singing and softer humming. Both of those were fortunately ever-present in the sonatas and impromptus.
Many people define loud piano playing as playing in which the pianist possesses “orchestral sonorities”. Indeed Schiff showed us a great dynamic range. But to my mind his idea of orchestral sonorities or colors is rather a matter of alludes to instruments in the orchestra rather than loudness per se. That characteristic I found very much present in his Beethoven playing, but to a large degree it exists in Schubert as well. As much as a good conductor would show us the details of the score – and let us not forget that he is also an exceptional conductor – Schiff often illuminates certain lines as if they were played by the instruments of the orchestra. That is often done by his left hand. And here we touch upon another characteristic of his playing: he belongs to, alas, a small group of pianists who see and hear the importance of the bass line, of the harmonic changes, of the already mentioned underlying rhythmic base which most often appears in the lower register of the piano. In the same A minor Sonata, long segments of tremolos evoked string sounds; elsewhere a melodic line would hesitate a tad on the first note of the phrase just as a violinist would do. And then there is the matter of illuminating different strands of melody or motifs appearing and reappearing in different registers of the instrument. In listening to Schiff I always have an impression of being guided through the score by a museum curator who fondly shows me the details of a painting which until then I thought I knew. In the moments of gentleness which this music is infused with, the pianist was perhaps even revealing a visual aspect of wonder, as if he himself were discovering the magic of the score at that exact moment. It is his secret how those interpretations which live with him for decades can still sound fresh, sincere and spontaneous.
The impulsive character of the music was demonstrated in the first of the Four Impromptus, D. 935, given an impulsive, dramatic reading of high energy and nearly brusque climate in the main theme. The turbulence subsided in the second episode but even here one felt a rare sense of urgency: it was as if it was played “in one breath”. It seemed to me that the pianist wanted to stress the cohesiveness of the four-movement suite into one whole. Not for no reason is this set of impromptus sometimes regarded as de facto another sonata. It seems to me that the pianist wanted to stress the cohesiveness of the whole four-movement suite into a one whole: there is a good reason to regard this set of impromptus as de facto another sonata. Each of the impromptus could fulfill a part in a four-segment scheme where No. 2 Allegretto would be slow movement, followed by No. 3 in B flat another set of variations (just as in previous sonata) and No. 4, back to F minor Allegro scherzando as dazzling, dancing finale.
It is impossible to cite all the memorable moments of the second part of the recital. I previously mentioned the wondrous flow of lilting melody which opens the Sonata in G Major, originally published as Sonata-Fantasia, whose four movements were to be played as individual pieces. As a whole it might well have been the most convincing performance of both the late Klavierstücke D. 946 and the sonata which followed. The pianist’s unbelievable sense of concentration remained, but one also had also sensed that another jolt of spontaneity and inspiration entered his fingers and brain. I pointed out earlier the matter of the unique rhythmic drive which manifested itself magnificently in the sonata’s Menuetto movement as it danced with remarkable freedom and lightness and then sang wistfully in the Trio section.
I guess the iron-clad logic of Sir András’s playing is what holds the listener glued to his incomparable concept of music-making and what at the same time makes me regard those performances as definitive. As I was listening with awe – and with me was the rest of an unusually attentive audience – it occurred to me that these performances will set standards for all future pianists.
So what does one offer for an encore after the grueling recital of nearly 150 minutes of music? Let alone one that ends quietly on softest G Major chord? Ideally what should follow is silence and no more music. But the audience thought otherwise, and with a standing ovation showed its sincere, deeply felt appreciation for Sir András. He rewarded us with two encores, both by Schubert: the sparkling and very well-known Impromptu in E flat that comes from an earlier set of four (D. 899), and another Schiff favorite, Hungarian Melody in B minor, originally written as a part of a four-hand composition, Divertissement à la hongroise: a hypnotic, haunting, mesmerizing tune.
And with that last note one was left with a feeling that one day future generations of concert-goers will envy us just as much as today we regret not having heard Rachmaninov, Ignaz Friedman or Heifetz in person. And they will ask: “So you really heard András Schiff live???”