András Schiff at the Wigmore Hall’s London Piano Series

Mozart, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Schumann, Beethoven: András Schiff (Piano) Wigmore Hall, London. 27. 5. 2011 (RBB)

Mozart: Variations K500 (1786)
Mendelssohn: Variations serieuses in D minor Op 54 (1841)
Haydn: Andante con variazioni HXVII:6 (1793
Schumann: Variations on an original theme in E Flat Op posth. ‘Geister’ Variations’ (1854)
Beethoven: 33 Variations in C on a waltz by Diabelli Op 120 (1819 &1822-23)

András Schiff used his latest recital in the Wigmore Hall as an opportunity to explore and perform some of the most profound and sublime sets of piano variations ever written.  In the first half of the recital, two sets of variations dating from the second half of the 18th Century were interposed with two sets from the middle of the 19th.   The second half of the recital was devoted to one single work – Beethoven’s monumental ‘Diabelli’ Variations.

The Mozart Variations with which Schiff opened the recital was the least well-known of the five programmed works.  It is a set of twelve variations on a gavotte-like theme that encapsulates all the formal elegance and inventiveness of Mozart’s late style.  Schiff’s tone was as beautiful as always, the phrasing was immaculate and the passage work crystal clear.  The ornamentation was extremely well executed and Schiff’s considerable technique came to the fore in a passage involving some difficult Scarlatti-like hand crossing.  The performance was poised, elegant and extremely refined.

After this serene opening, the mood of the concert changed as Schiff played three of the most profoundly beautiful works in the repertoire.  Mendelssohn was keen to differentiate his Variations from some of the virtuoso salon pieces of the time which is why he designated than as the ‘Variations Serieuses’.  They are written in the same key as Bach’s great D minor Chaconne for solo violin, which was a significant influence on this as well as other sets of piano variations written in 19th Century.  Schiff’s performance of the Mendelssohn was quite outstanding and a high point of this recital.  Each of the variations was vividly characterised and the piece unfolded in a seamless and organic way.  Schiff was completely on top of the demanding pyrotechnics and generated considerable excitement and intensity while also bringing out many of the expressive aspects of the work.  Some of the textural layering and tonal control was quite outstanding.

The Haydn F minor Variations is undoubtedly the greatest set of piano variations written in the second half of the 18th Century. They are a set of double variations to two alternating themes in minor and then major keys. There is a pervasive sadness running through the piece and it is likely it may have been inspired by the death of a close Viennese friend. Schiff’s performance had an extraordinary intensity, and he brought out a very strong sense of the line and architecture of the piece.  His tone was once again absolutely ravishing and some of the arabesques and ornamentations were quite exquisite.  Schiff lifted the mood ever so slightly, and captured some of Haydn’s wit and elegance in the final episode in the major key, while the coda had all the right elements of elegiac grandeur and resignation.

Schumann’s late music is, like that of Schubert, often unbearably sad and the ‘Geister Variations’ are profoundly moving.  This is the last piece of music Schumann composed and he wrote these variations while in the midst of his final mental breakdown and suicide attempt.  Schiff’s rendition of this piece was extremely sensitive.  He conjured plaintive and wistfully sad sounds from the piano and used subtle pedalling to blur the harmonies and textures as if to express the fragility and dissociation that the composer must have been feeling.  The playing had an ethereal and hallucinatory quality that was really rather magical.

Having put himself through the emotional wringer in the first half of the concert I did wonder how Schiff might rise to the monumental challenge of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations, one of the Everest’s of the piano repertoire.  These variations belong to Beethoven’s final period and he wrote them at the same time as the last three piano sonatas and the Missa Solemnis, and just before the last quartets.  They share some characteristics with Bach’s equally majestic ‘Goldberg’ Variations, which may have provided a model for the work, and in one of the variations Beethoven quotes Leporello’s aria ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ from Don Giovanni.

Schiff’s performance of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations was extremely polished and well executed but for me it was the least satisfying part of this outstanding recital.  There were many high points to the performance, in particular the two fugal variations; the wonderful Largo at the centre of the work, where Schiff’s tone was quite ravishing and the ornamentation exquisite; and the final minuet, which was quite sublime.  However, I did not always feel that Schiff linked the variations together in a way that was intellectually satisfying, and I sometimes lost the thread of the music.  I also felt that the performance needed a little more grit in places to underscore the elements of conflict and struggle that are so integral to Beethoven’s music.

As an encore, Schiff performed yet another set of extremely profound variations, namely, the second movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata in C minor, Op 111.  I was astonished that Schiff could sit down and play such an emotionally complex piece after the Diabelli Variations but he played it extremely well. He brought out the other worldly and disembodied feel of the piece (at times the music seemed to float suspended in space) and there was an emotional warmth and tenderness in the playing.

At the end of the concert Schiff acknowledged a very well deserved standing ovation from a packed house.

Robert Beattie