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Sir András Schiff comes back to Brahms

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/03/2018 -  & October 23 (Ottawa), 25 (Chapel Hill), 27 (Atlanta), 29 (Saint Paul), 2017, March 29* (Princeton), April 12 (Santa Barbara), 15 (San Francisco), 2018
Felix Mendelssohn: Fantasie in F-Sharp Minor, op. 28
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 24 in F-Sharp Major, op. 78
Johannes Brahms: Klavierstücke, op. 76 – Fantasien, op. 116
Johann Sebastian Bach: English Suite No. 6 in D Minor, BWV 811

Sir András Schiff (piano)

A. Schiff (© Jennifer Taylor)

The music lovers on the East Coast of the United States have become used to the annual appearances of Sir András Schiff, arguably one of the greatest living musicians of our time. I purposely mention the word “musician” rather than pianist, for there are tons of great pianists around and only a precious few can be also called all-around-musicians. Lest we forget Sir András has, in addition to being a much-in-demand concert pianist and a chamber musician as well as a revered teacher for a chosen few young piano students, a blooming career as an orchestra conductor. How much more “all-around” can you get? There’s hardly a musician for whose concerts I would willingly travel outside the confines of New York City but that is exactly what I did, and before Sir András had a chance to perform his two recital programs at the cavernous Carnegie Hall. To me, smaller venues such as Richardson Auditorium in Princeton served both the artist and the music better.

In recent years, the solo programs of Sir András concentrated on either cycles or one-composer programs, though not exclusively: in 2012 there was quite a lot of Bartók. Thus after the Beethoven complete sonatas project came all-Bach programs, then all-Schubert programs. This season, Sir András revisited more varied repertory and more importantly came back to solo piano works of Brahms, a composer for whom he has a great affinity but whose works he has not performed on this continent for nearly three decades. I still recall the wonderful performances of Opus 116 and Opus 118 and often wondered why he abandoned that segment of his repertory. Well, the two recital programs he brought with him featured all the late works as well as Eight Piano Pieces opus 76, that were written earlier, though their character seems as autumnal as the later works.

Schiff being Schiff, he leaves nothing to chance and this time devised his program by not only Brahms piano works but also by tonal relations, which must have made a difference even to the untrained ear. Thus, in the first of the two programs, the initial two works started in the key of F-sharp (minor for Mendelssohn, major for Beethoven) and proceeded with the same key to the opening Brahms Capriccio op. 76 No. 1. He followed this idea in the second half of the recital with works in the key of D minor: the opening and concluding Capriccio from Opus 116 was in that key as well as the following work, the Bach English Suite in D minor. Sir András rightly seems to espouse a belief that one doesn’t really need to play Bach at the beginning of a program merely due to chronology.

The second recital followed a similar pattern: the Schumann Ghost Variations are in the key of E-flat and so is the first of the Intermezzi from Opus 117 by Brahms. What followed was Mozart Rondo in A minor which was also a key of the first of Opus 118 by Brahms. Similarly, Schiff performed after the intermission the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B minor, which segued without almost a moment of pause to the B minor Intermezzo from Opus 119. This set ends in the key of E-flat and so starts the concluding work on that recital, Beethoven’s Sonata opus 81a, known as “Les Adieux.” One may ask: are these key relations all that important? Would it be all that incorrect to play works that don’t end and start in the same key? Probably it wouldn’t but for the listeners ear – and I am sure I am not talking only for myself – it created a certain comfort and convincing transition from one composer to another. One more thing: only someone with as inquisitive mind as Sir András would chose an encore that on the first thought has not appear to be of any significance. But what a wonderful, interesting and original idea to continue a program , just concluded with a Farewell (“Les Adieux”), with another “farewell-type-of–work”, namely the Capriccio for the Departure of Beloved Brother written some hundred years earlier by J.S. Bach.

Another characteristic of the two-recital series was inclusion of works rarely played by Sir András outside of cycles such as the Beethoven Sonata or the Bach single Prelude and Fugue or an English Suite, which recently was a part of all set of Six. I am quite pleased with this return to programs presenting a variety of composers, especially in that thought-provoking juxtaposition. The other significant feature of both recitals was the placement of the piano, slightly skewed to the right, thus allowing the audience sitting on the right side of the hall a better view of the keyboard as well as better sound. In the case of Carnegie Hall, those listeners sitting on the non-keyboard side were not to be pitied for they ended up hearing the music more clearly than the “preferred” keyboard-side patrons.

Sir András opened his program with the relatively rarely performed Mendelssohn Fantasie in F-Sharp minor, sometimes called the Sonate écossaise: similar to Beethoven’s Quasi una fantasia, the famous “Moonlight,” this one is similarly designed in three parts, with the rhapsodic, improvisatory in nature first movement, a middle movement in a surprisingly not triple but duple meter and finally – just as in Beethoven’s – a virtuoso Finale, moto perpetuo Presto. In this movement, there’s a tradition practiced by past great pianists who performed this Mendelssohn score to play it with blinding speed, causing the notes to sound almost blurred. Schiff went for the other option: by adopting just a slightly slower tempo (which, for those who don’t play the piano, is much more difficult to control!), he gave us a workshop of what can be done with the left hand. The detail, voicing and orchestral colors (not loudness!) that he was able to illuminate were astonishing and in this listener’s opinion almost erased from memory such past formidable examples by such pianists as Bolet or Cherkassky.

A similar approach accompanied the Beethoven Sonata in F-sharp Major, one of the composer’s favorites: it is written in a rare key for him and is also one of the two movement sonatas. The first, Schubertian in style and manner (Allegro ma non troppo) possessed, on one hand, all innocence, calmness and tenderness; on the other hand cried declarations or loud questions that from time to time stopped the flow of the music. Here the pianist’s mastery was demonstrated by keeping the tempo flowing, but still finding time to illuminate the motivic development in the left hand, as if played by different orchestral instruments. In the second movement, again by adopting a tad more leisurely tempo, the pianist was able to articulate the very difficult two-note slurs that Beethoven strangely demands from his performer. Yet it was still a very exciting romp and another example of the toccata or moto perpetuo – interrupted by occasional questions – that sometimes characterize finales of his sonatas. Schiff plays with such an inimitable charm and knows, like few others, how to bring out humor from Beethoven’s (or Haydn’s) scores.

Sir András’ interpretations of Brahms’ shorter, Schumannesque works, his “miniatures” as it were and whose inception is the Opus 76, could be characterized as more rhapsodic than mercurial. The case in point could be the two Opus 76 Capriccios: No. 2 in B minor and No. 5 in C-sharp minor. Perhaps the most famous among those late piano works – to which, in my opinion those Eight Pieces opus 76 already belong – is the Capriccio in B minor, which has a distinct dancing character (à la Schubert’s Moment Musical in F minor). Here again, by taking a slightly broader tempo, Schiff was able to illuminate the wonderful lines in the left hand that brought out a rarely encountered dance feeling. It was one of the most charming interpretations this side of the great Brahmsian Wilhelm Kempff, who would have been proud of that performance. The gravity and solemnity that characterized the most dramatic of the eight, the Capriccio in C sharp minor, could comfortable fit the mood of the B-flat Piano Concerto.

A similar sense of nobility, majesty and seriousness, wrapped in the sumptuous sound of his Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano, characterized another set of Brahms late pieces, his Opus
. Here, just to be on the right side of “keeping-up-with-tonal-relations”, we started in key of D minor which was also a key of the last Capriccio and from there we proceeded to Bach’s English Suite No. 6 in D minor. In those Seven Fantasias, the music oscillates between passionate and heartfelt lyricism, as it did earlier in Schumann imaginary characters of Eusebius and Florestan, but those two characters are now much more mature: Brahms was after all nearing sixty and already felt autumnal. All these qualities make Sir András’ Brahms about the most compelling that this listener has heard in the last decades, if not ever. There is this underlying sense of narration, there is palpable caressing of the phrases, to lean over certain notes in a manner of a great string player, making sure that each phrase is presented in a declamatory fashion and that there is always a breathing space between them. We always hear the counterpoint and inner voices and the bass line is ever present. The famous credo of great masters such as Horszowski and Kempff – “make sure that adagios are not too slow and allegros not too fast” – does wonders in Brahms music. And one must not forget the melting sound of the piano, seamless legato and beautifully shaped melodic lines. One is always apprehensive about calling this or that performance definitive so I will only say that there were no performances in recent decades that in my mind sounded nearly as convincing, as natural, as right as the late Brahms we heard in the two recital programs. The good news is that apparently Sir András is already scheduled to record those works and this recording is, in my humble opinion, long overdue.

András Schiff concluded his official program with one of the English Suites by Bach: we are used to hearing it as part of his performances of the set of six, but it was a fitting ending. In the fugal opening section of the Prelude, there were surprising moments of tempo surge, but it is possible that our pianist wanted to eschew adherence to a strict rhythmic pulse. For those of us used to another characteristic of this pianists Bach playing, which is his renouncement of the pedal, here there were a few moments where a very discreet use of the sustaining pedal was applied. The real test of that work, the tour-de-force that is the last Gigue, also in the form of a fugue, was passed with flying colors: the sheer mastery of the counterpoint, clarity and perfection of execution of those irritating twists and turns, especially in the left hand, rendered this listener in awe.

Then came time for the encores, which were slightly different in each of the two venues: in Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall at Princeton University (which was also the annual Paderewski Memorial Concert), Sir András offered us just one movement of Bach Italian Concerto followed by two of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, while at Carnegie Hall, we heard the whole Italian Concerto and a little, newly discovered fragment by Brahms, which displays the same material that he would later utilize in the Scherzo of the Trio for Piano, Violin and French Horn.

Roman Markowicz



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