A Really Beautiful Mind
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia K 475; Rondo K 511; 10 Variations K455; Sonatas K533/494, K576, K457
Andras Schiff (piano)
“The first rule of music is clarity.”
In a world that so often celebrates the meretricious and perfunctory, it was extremely refreshing to dwell for two and a half hours last evening in the atmosphere of pure genius. Andras Schiff, who is touring the country with a more varied program, has selected a few cities for a sojourn into one particular period in the amazing compositional career of Mozart. The Hungarian pianist concentrated the total focus of his intellectually interpretive laser beam on the years between 1784 and 1789 and exposed this rich time in the composer’s history, right before his premature death, as one of intense exploration and limitless beauty. This type of microsurgery has been the wont of Mr. Schiff in recent seasons in New York as we have been the beneficiaries of his insights and profound technical abilities in the music of Bach and Schumann in some of the most revelatory concerts in memory.
To be a tour guide in this impressive of a blue grotto, one must be as exceptional a communicator as the composer himself. Schiff works extremely hard to convey the effortlessness of his performances, displaying an almost superhuman definition between left and right hands, creating indeed the illusion of two Bosendoerfers in the room. Further, he italicizes the main thematic material with subtle but noticeable nuances of expression, the important source for the musical ruminations at hand always either played a tad softer or louder than its neighboring tones, or with a slightly differing stylistic flair. This technique served him (and us) especially well for the ending set of variations, the only unfamiliar music on the program, and the succeeding two sets of encores, themselves variations by Mozart and then Bach. This ending, by the way, placed an exclamation point on the importance to music history of these Mozart piano pieces. Schiff seemed to be taking a moment to remind of the lineage: although one composer, Leopold Mozart, may have been his natural father, the musical patriarch of the boy genius was really his London mentor Johann Christian Bach and, by the rules of aesthetic filial piety, his grandfather was old J.S. himself.
A Schiff recital is one of those experiences when one waits for the audible exhalation of breath from one’s own lips. The pace is set immediately, the air changing around the listener as sure as in the orchestral interlude of Mahler’s 8th. The very first intonations of dark grandeur in the C Minor Fantasia announced the portent of the evening and, from then on, the audience was in the grip of not one but two masters. To avoid even the suggestion of boredom, Schiff cleverly arranged the pieces as reflective counterposes in major and minor, the tragic and the humorous two faces in the same mirror (in his Schumann recital, he broke up the performance of the Novelletten and presented them around the interval, the second half an instant magical recollection of the first). The Sonata in F was a comedic masterpiece, the endearing figure of Masetto at the forefront, the pianist himself smiling benignly and looking down upon his keyboard as if in an out of body experience (Mr. Schiff’s long arms and dignified, erect manner can create an illusion of divine detachment). By now having the crowd in his back pocket, he was able to commence the A Minor Rondo with such delicate quietude as to almost instantaneously create an ethos of sublimity rare in the public concert hall (by its very nature a less than intimate experience). The first half of this great recital ended with an heroic allegro in the D Major leading to another type of humor, one more grounded in the natural world, the music itself a creature of the forest, Papageno incarnate.
Rarely have I seen such rapt attention from audience members, several of whom were following along with their scores. After the break, the aesthetic focus changed from the catharsis of the heart to that of the head as Schiff presented a glowing reading of the C Minor Sonata as a complex but perfectly realizable architectural drawing, the plans for a magnificent cathedral of pure reason. Following this excruciatingly intense mathematical artistry with three sets of variations was a masterstroke and the sum total of this second half was a bounty of delightful cerebral activity. The listener was never lost on this convoluted synaptic journey as the man in charge this night, and the spirit of the creators, were always able to keep our attention riveted on the main melodies and their wonderful peregrinations and permutations. One would never dare to label any performance as perfect, but this crisp and clean approach at least knocked at the door of the immortals.
Frederick L. Kirshnit