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A Lesson on How to Build a Recital Program

05/07/2017 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992 – Four Duets, BWV 802-805
Béla Bartók: Mikrokosmos, Book VI, Sz. 107: Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm – Piano Sonata, Sz. 80
Leos Janácek: In the Mists
Robert Schumann: Fantasie in C major, op. 17

Sir András Schiff (piano)

Sir A. Schiff (© Sheila Rock)

During my very short visit in Vienna, I had a chance to catch a pair of music events of which the memorable one was a recital by Sir András Schiff. Sir András happens to be an artist I admire greatly and over the years have heard numerous times during his frequent visits to New York. This was however the first time I heard him outside of the United States, let alone in a venue acoustically as splendid as the Mozart Saal at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. I guess this space doesn’t seat more than 600 people, which is ideal for solo recitals and chamber music events.

The program Sir András presented was one of the three planned for works by J.S.Bach, Bela Bartók, Leos Janácek and Robert Schumann. However, what makes these programs doubly interesting is Sir András’s inclination to mix and match the works of Bach and Bartók rather than play uninterrupted, say, all 15 Sinfonias or all of the Bartok shorter pieces. I have already experienced that programming idea during his recitals in New York some five years ago and find it both fascinating and convincing. What made this event unlike any other that I have ever attended by this pianist was that it was also in the form of a lecture-recital. Not a tedious, hour-long lecture where there’s more talk than music, but well thought out descriptions of the works to be performed, together with a demonstration of some themes or fragments at the piano. Though my knowledge of German is minimal at best, I was still able to understand the musical aspects of the lecture where for example Sir András showed his audience the intricacies of Bulgarian rhythm-structure, the themes of the Bach Capriccio in B-flat or the two different endings to the Schumann Fantasy in C major op. 17. Alas, the humorous aspect of Sir András’ presentation was lost on me: Only sporadically could I hear the outbursts of laughter when he commented on this or that detail of a given work. It turns out that in Bach’s descriptive composition there is not only a postal coach horn but also the neighing of a horse. Who’d have known...

By the way, what surprised me from the moment of Sir András’ entrance on stage was the reception of his audience; here in New York this type of enthusiasm is reserved for a few of the opera stars or for Martha Argerich (when once a decade she decides to accept and then not cancel her performance). It pleased me to see that Sir András has seemingly reached that exalted status in Vienna.

The Bach Capriccio in B-flat on “the Departure of His Beloved Brother” (1703-06) which opened the program is a six-segment composition which, though one of the earliest keyboard pieces in his catalogue, already shows a very skilled and imaginative composer. The six movements outline the story of parting from a brother (or as some musicologists suggest, a friend) and comment on the perils of the journey. Apparently this is about the only descriptive or programmatic piece among Bach’s keyboard works. Even for untrained ears the similarity of the trumpet and posthorn sounds in the fugue that crowns the piece are unmistakable.

Sir András’ approach was rather gentle, delicate and improvisatory, as if he were playing a clavichord. Especially the passacaglia-like part indicated as Adagissimo was sorrowful and affected. The demanding ornamentation, found in the works of French harpsichord masters of that era, was delightfully executed; what surprised me however was the fact that Sir András, long advocating playing Bach without use of the sustaining pedal, here didn’t shy away from doing just that and to enchanting effect. Well, maybe one just has to know how to use the pedal... When finally the concluding double-fugue arrived it was bristling with energy and typical of this pianist’s wondrous clarity of voicing. I wonder if I am the only one for whom its theme always reminds of Glenn Gould’s hilarious parody “So you want to write a fugue?” for a quartet of vocalists and string quartet.

Bach’s work was followed without applause by the first three of Bartók’s Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. That pattern of juxtaposing the two composers continued throughout the first part of the program, the Bartok dances mingled with Bach’s Four Duets BVW 802-805 to a very good effect, as both sets of compositions only gain by not being performed one after another.
András Schiff is an unusual interpreter of Bartók inasmuch that he eschews a notion of the great Hungarian composer’s piano music as being percussive and brutal. Apparently Bartók’s own recordings prove that point and over the years I was always impressed to hear how much his piano music gains by that gentler, less percussive approach. This was most noticeably demonstrated in the Sonata for Piano (1926), a composition Bartók wrote for his own use a year later during his American tour as a pianist. Sir András adopts a slightly slower pace in the opening movement in which he stresses the “moderato” part of the tempo indication (Allegro moderato). That aristocratic, nobler approach allows the pianist to bring out lines, voices and textures otherwise lost in a typically senseless virtuoso approach. Not to imply that Sir András’ performance was lackluster or devoid of energy: the energy was there, except it was wisely applied. The slower tempo of the first movement transformed it from the usually relentless toccata to a joyful, village parade with pipes, shouts and blissful banging on a bass-drum, wonderfully imitated by the lower register of the Bösendorfer piano – in this venue as resonant as I have never heard before. In the second movement Sostenuto e pesante even the pounding of the melody by a fist didn’t sound harsh, as it seems impossible for this pianist to obtain an ugly sound out of his piano.

As I mentioned in another review of this artist, his “orchestral” approach to the piano manifests itself not in sheer loudness, but rather in implying different instruments of the orchestra which could be playing different strains of the tunes. This version had a rarely encountered finesse and a wide palette of color and sounds: all in all a magnificent and penetrating performance of a work that can be abused by less thoughtful players.

The second part of the morning recital devoted to Janácek’s work In the Mists and the great Schumann Fantasy in C major, was also preceded by a short lecture. Here our pianist wanted us to hear the difference between the two versions of the piece, notably the ending of the third movement Langsam getragen. Durchwegs leise zu halten. Since I was already familiar with the history of that discovery, it was easier for me to understand Mr. Schiff’s narration and the musical examples. In short: the American pianist, scholar and writer Charles Rosen approached Mr. Schiff with a request to find in Hungarian archives the manuscript of the alternative ending to the Fantasy. It differs from the version we commonly hear with a different harmonization of the phrase taken out of Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte: the same phrase that re-appears at the very end of the work. This particular harmonizing may sound strange but at the same time it may possibly demonstrate the distress of the composer, or at least his state of mind.

Retaining in memory Sir András’ NY performance of Schumann’s work some years ago, I thought that this time it gained in the spontaneity, freedom and impulsiveness so crucial to that tormented score. He, like only a few others, knows how to bring out polyphony, hidden voices and counterpoint in the first movement, when to hold the tempo and when to surge ahead, how not to rush the march and to sing out the melodies of the heart-wrenching last movement.

I am glad that I could hear this remarkable artist in his, so to speak, own habitat: favorite hall, favorite Bösendorfer piano, friendliest audience possible. One can probably guess my only regret: that it was only one of the three programs of that design and devoted to those four composers. It is not the reviewer’s job to advise the artist what to do and what not to do, but if I could twist both of his arms, I’d lead him to the recording studio to record his Bartók solo repertory, sadly missing from his present discography.

As a footnote:
A friend, whom I took to the concert, who has never heard András Schiff live, and who, as a rule, is quite ruthless in her opinions, unusually demanding and knowledgeable, left this recital in tears. Who knows if that fact alone could not have served as my entire review?

Roman Markowicz



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