The Honesty of the Artist
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Robert Schumann: Waldszenen, Op. 82 – Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 – Kinderszenen, Op.15 – Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13
András Schiff (Piano)
A. Schiff (© Sheila Rock)
After a week of Mahler symphonies in Carnegie Hall, a full evening of Robert Schumann came not as a relaxant, but as a respite of sorts. Valery Gergiev had conducted Mahler with serenity, violence, energy and at times eccentricity. András Schiff played his evening of Schumann with a tranquility bordering on the coolness. But always with intelligence, honesty and an intellectual aura.
For decades now, Mr. Schiff has performed with a modest scrupulousness. The music of his countryman Béla Bartók has Magyar rhythm but is always lyrical. Mr. Schiff’s Bach may be more classical than Baroque, but the essence of Bach lies beneath the surface.
So during this 200th Anniversary of Robert Schumann, one knew that Mr. Schiff would approach the music the way he approached the Carnegie Hall Steinway: without agitation or artifice, always with the sense of Schumann’s narrative.
The first few notes of Forest Scenes said it all. Mahler once visited Niagara Falls and apparently said, “Now this is a fortissimo!” Listening to the first phrases of Mr. Schiff, one had to say, “Now this is a legato!”
Despite the picturesque titles, Mr. Schiff painted no forest pictures. His “Prophet bird” was piano playing at its most austere, with no bird to be found. The hunting scene and “colored leaves” became delectable salon pieces (they are hardly Schumann’s best), but always lovely to hear.
The following Davidsbündlertänze (a Teutonic tongue-twister) supposedly showed the yin and yang of music, but Mr. Schiff didn’t seem interested in the extremes. The beginning was like a gentle Brahms waltz, the “somewhat impetuous” movement was giddy and sometimes playful, and the full work was easy to hear. Schumann described them as “delight mixed with pain.” Mr. Schiff made all the movements pure music.
One could never say this first half was disappointing, but the second half had three surprising excitements. Not especially the Scenes from Childhood, which were predictably deft, lucid and eloquent. But the Symphonic Etudes were, as they should be truly exciting.
This was the first work not especially pictorial, and Mr. Schiff, beginning slowly, built up a whole work which was not only emotionally exciting, but had a unity of color and, above all, of structure. (They seemed shorter, more focused than usual, but Mr. Schiff used the revised version, which cut out some of the variations. )
Modest as ever, Mr. Schiff obviously enjoyed this concert, for he gave two encores–two enormous encores. Both of them–the full Papillons and the final movement of the C Major Fantasy–showed the pianist in most uncharacteristic unconstrained good spirits. Which, after a perfect recital, was confessedly something of a relief.