Insights Are Not Always Illuminating

09/04/2018

Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven: Sir András Schiff (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 31.3.2018. (BJ)

SchumannGeistervariationen WoO.24
Brahms – Three Intermezzos Op.117; Six Piano Pieces Op.118;  Four Piano Pieces Op.119
Mozart – Rondo in A minor K.511
Bach – Prelude and Fugue No.24 in B minor BWV869
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E-flat major Op.81a, Les Adieux

Such was the richly searching range of touch that Sir András Schiff brought to bear on an exceptionally fine Bösendorfer 280VC grand, and so seductive the tone he elicited from it, that no more than a minute or so was needed to establish beyond doubt the presence of a major artist. He played the entire program in, as it were, two breaths, segueing smoothly from one piece to the next, and relying on a telling exploitation of textural variety to highlight the shifting character of the music, from the darkly brooding intensity of the last piano work Schumann wrote, the Geistervariationen, WoO 24 (rarely heard, but played here a couple of years ago by Imogen Cooper), and the chiseled poise of Mozart’s A-minor Rondo, to the kaleidoscopic repertoire of moods that Brahms was able to bring to even his most modestly scaled creations.

Thus far, then, this was at once a riveting demonstration of musical affinities and contrasts, devised in a way that asserted the pianist’s insights from the very start of the evening. It took rather longer for me to realize an aspect of his approach that, after intermission, seemed markedly less successful. The lightbulb moment for me came with the onset of the main Allegro theme in the first movement of the Beethoven sonata. Here, quite appropriately, Schiff dashed off with glorious freedom of phrase and clarity of articulation. The effect was undeniably exciting. But it served also to reveal what it is about the idea of passing uninterruptedly from one piece in a program to another that can undermine the effect of each.

A composer, whether consciously or instinctively, sets up a range of contrasts that is specific to the work he is writing. If the Beethoven sonata had followed the traditional pause after the preceding Brahms group, perhaps allowing the audience to express its appreciation and the pianist to relax his mind and his limbs, all would have been well. But when that revelatory moment in the first movement came, it had to stand up in the evening’s Brahms-Beethoven continuity against a wider range of contrasts, some of which were no part of either Brahms’s or Beethoven’s planning, and the result was to make the theme and its treatment seem almost chaotic in its detachment from either composer’s intentions.

At that point, I’m afraid, Sir András lost me. But never mind. The playing itself continued to be wonderful, and there could be no questioning the response it aroused from an audience that clearly loved everything it was hearing.

Bernard Jacobson

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