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The Sound of Surprise

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/05/2018 -  & February 7 (Geneva), March 31 (Philadelphia), April 8 (Los Angeles), 10 (Vancouver), 17 (San Francisco), 2018
Robert Schumann: Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 24
Johannes Brahms: Three Intermezzos, Op. 117 – Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118 – Klavierstücke, Op. 119
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in A Minor, K. 511
Johann Sebastien Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 869
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”

Sir András Schiff (piano)

A. Schiff (© Nadia F. Romanini)

“Cradlesongs of My Sufferings”
Brahms describing his late piano compositions

“One last question, when will you be back in Geneva?
Very soon end of February. I will have a recital at Victoria Hall which is one of my favorite halls. It will be similar to the one I gave with late Brahms pieces combined with works by Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.”
Sir András Schiff, interview with ConcertoNet’s Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

Who is the greatest composer in music history? Popular opinion would respond “Beethoven”, however a number of us dissenters would choose Brahms instead (and later generations might select Webern). It may simply be that Ludwig van had a better agent than Johannes and naming the symphonies and piano sonatas with catchy soubriquets was as effective as any maneuver in contemporary magazine or television advertising. Even the crusty piano player from the seamy neighborhoods of Hamburg would choose his predecessor if pressed. Once at a dinner the host raved about his own choice of wines, stating that the current libation was “his Brahms”. In the plain talk of the docks, Brahms took a sip and replied “then you had better bring out your Beethoven!”

Sir András Schiff may have stacked the deck just a tad by choosing to perform all of the pieces in opera 117 through 119, the highest reaches of the Brahmin pinnacle. Gentle reader, be forewarned that this is not your typical music review, concerned with wrong notes or finger slips. With an artist like Mr. Schiff this would be a rather fruitless mission. Rather let’s examine the emotional effect of this particular juxtaposition: why one work follows another creating a coherent whole.

The Brahms pieces were interspersed with the other musical material. Opus 117 consists of three self-contained essays on valedictory emotions. Schiff interwove the short Schumann piece with the first of the Brahms efforts, not lifting his hands from their place hovering above the keyboard and ending the rare Schumann – composed in 1854 but not heard at Carnegie until 2006 – so softly that there was no hint of intrusive applause.

Perhaps I am not as familiar with the Brahms Op. 117 as I thought, since Mr. Schiff produced a transition to a major key in the first of the three pieces that I could have sworn should have been down to a minor one, however this might have been a different edition. This is as good as any of a place to mention (rather gently) that András Schiff is not the most accurate of keyboard artists, but as the three Brahms essays unfolded one could not shake the feeling that this was less a piano recital and more of a theatrical effort, as if Schiff himself were composing. At the conclusion of the first set of Brahms, the pianist kept his hands above the keyboard stifling rather effectively the smattering of applause with an eloquent physical gesture in dumbshow.

So by the time we reached the Mozart together, we knew that this artist was attempting something completely different – some sort of combination of music recital and thespian creation, a play with music in five acts. Not playing any note of the Mozart above a mezzoforte emphasized the personally creative nature of this evening. All was quiet, all gentle.

So that by the time that Brahms Op. 118 began, we were all caught up in the conspiracy that this piece of musical theater was refreshing and new. Now, finally, Mr. Schiff began to play loudly when required, making the first Brahms – the intermezzo in A minor – all the more dramatic. Without abandoning his tactile mastery, this pianist wove a complex set of emotions that did not relent until the conclusion of the piece as a whole. I scribbled in my program booklet “set up to be dramatic”. This being the end of the first half we were all allowed to applaud, which we did with intense pleasure.

My own “Cradlesongs of My Sufferings” needs a mention here. Inexplicably the couple seated directly in front of me brought their very young (six or maybe seven years old) child with them. This wee darling played with her phone, talked to her parents and unsuccessfully tried to put her head on either one of their shoulders throughout the first half. Very annoying but not an insoluble problem. When Kurt Masur was here as music director of the Philharmonic, he used to seat his wife and their adult son in the back row of the then Avery Fisher (now David Geffen) Hall. I often take his clue and sit there myself at either Lincoln Center or Carnegie. That row was fortuitously empty this night and so I changed my seat during the interval.

Alas a fool’s move as the two women directly in front of me spent their time after intermission cleaning out their purses, chatting, combing their hair, etc. Horrendously impolite behavior and one that sent me flying for the exits. The Bach that opened the second half was a gentle tonic, seemingly meant to restore some sense of normality to this unusual and perhaps groundbreaking recital, a cleansing of the palate if you will. Then back to Brahms, where the Op. 119 seemed more theatrical, more openly dramatic. I plead extenuating circumstances for not staying for the Beethoven, but throw myself on the mercy of the reader. I suffered enough while sitting in this recital.

To sum up, András Schiff is a thinking man’s pianist, not always the most accurate but clearly the most interesting that I have encountered in some time. I can’t wait for his next appearance in New York.

Fred Kirshnit



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