Die Glueckliche Hand
Johann Sebastian Bach: Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother, Prelude and Fugue BWV 894
Robert Schumann: Novelletten
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 17 ("Tempest"), Sonata # 18
Andras Schiff (piano)
Many concerts in this rich community of New York are very satisfying and appear at the time to be of the highest quality, but every once in a while an artist performs who is so superior in his musicianship, intellectualism, and technique as to throw these apparently good performances into the remainder bin of our critical judgment. Such a recital was the one presented last night by Andras Schiff, who had already provided the finest performance in an orchestral concert this season with his masterful conceptions of the three Bartok Piano Concerti with Ivan Fisher and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Along with the amazing Kyung-Wha Chung and her recital of Bartok, this Hungarian master of the keyboard has been the toast of New York this year.
When those organ pieces were discovered about ten years ago and attributed to Bach, there was much excitement in the musical world. A friend of mine wondered why, as there are only a handful of people alive who have already absorbed the genius of everything else in the Leipziger’s astonishing repertoire. Mr. Schiff chose to begin his program with a minor example of Bachian juvenalia, one that Schmieder himself probably never heard. What was fascinating about this work of a nineteen-year-old was that it was unadulterated program music, along the lines of Janequin’s La Bataille. The departure is a joyous one, as the brother had obtained a position as an oboist at court and young Johann proceeded to send him off with a little suite filled with good humor and fellow feeling. Schiff performed this little jewel as a logical opening to the magnificent but never performed Novelletten of Schumann. These piano narratives were actually named for the English soprano Clara Novello and it is only a fortuitous coincidence that they linguistically relate to the word novel, but there is no question that they speak to the heart of the relationship between the Romantic movement and the French roman. They are exciting little stories, written in a style more Eusebius than Florestan, and one of their shortcomings is that they are all of the swashbuckling variety and eight in a row can be overwhelming. Recognizing this potential factor for overexposure, Schiff cleverly played the first four in the first half of the recital and the second in the second. It is hard to imagine anyone infusing more pianistic excitement into these works than this true artist.
But it was in the two Beethoven sonatas where Mr. Schiff led me to believe that most of the good pianists that I hear need to go back to school. The opening of the "Tempest" was an essay in the art of the touch, the five note storm theme played dramatically, the six note answer delicately, and the syncopated second phrase with just the slightest hint of rubato that bespoke years of study and serious thought about what we are all actually doing here. The entire movement was as adventurous a story as any boy could ever read and showed its programmatic ancestry of the Schumann and many pieces like it that are the core of the Romantic ouevre. The slow movement was sublime, but the real treat was the fairy-like touch of the last movement. I have never heard anyone play this movement so expertly, not even Claudio Arrau. The Carnegie Hall audience paid Schiff the ultimate compliment, sitting for several seconds of complete silence before erupting in applause.
The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor predates the WTC by several years and has a much more rapid prelude than we have come to expect. Mr. Schiff capitalized on the speed of the opening to immediately launch into a prestissimo version of the fugue, as impressive technically as musically (my hand cramped just watching him). Then we heard the second four of the Novelletten and they seemed almost old friends after the prolonged interval.
Again the second Beethoven performance was masterful. This gentle companion piece to the mighty "Tempest" has an unusual four movement structure and portends the form shattering sonatas of the mature middle period. Schiff not only traversed this landscape with ease, but stayed to encore an entire set of variations by Schumann for the appreciative crowd. It isn’t often that we feel that we are in the presence of greatness. Last night was one I will remember for many years to come.
Frederick L. Kirshnit