Something Missing from András Schiff’s Recital

United StatesUnited States  Bach, Bartók, Beethoven: András Schiff (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 29.2.2012 (HS)

Pianist András Schiff is a no-nonsense kind of guy. His approach to music mirrors his entrance to the stage: he walks in, bows graciously, sits at the piano and starts to play – no gazing into the distance for him, no long delays while he shifts his focus to the music. He just launches into it without fuss. When it all clicks, it’s bracing, especially when the music bubbles up as if from a natural spring. But something didn’t quite jell in his recital Wednesday at Zellerbach Hall. Phrases were finely articulated, dynamics closely observed, tempos never lagging. That extra frisson of something special emerging never quite developed, however. In the end, the results were admirable but not uplifting.

The program promised more. A Bach specialist, Schiff opened with the 15 Three-Part Inventions, moved on to Bartók’s rambunctious Piano Sonata (a nod to his native Hungary), and after an intermission scaled one of the peaks of the repertoire, Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations. All three lie in Schiff’s wheelhouse, but only the Bartók took wing.

The Bach works, less often heard than the two-part inventions, are as beautifully crafted as any of his music, but they require a little more inspiration to play effectively. That’s what was missing from Schiff’s diligent approach. He seemed more intent on managing the details than in finding an arc through the intricate counterpoint.

From the first notes of the Bartók sonata, however, he found demonic elements in the slashing rhythms and raucous harmonies. The music pulsed with driving power, surging in the outer movements, laying back in the slower second movement for contrast. But even there, although he made the obvious contrasts, he seemed less interested in mining enough of the other details. So the result lacked the extra dimensions we should expect from a great pianist, especially a great Hungarian-born pianist.

The challenge in Beethoven’s sprawling variations, which span the gamut of what the piano could do in Beethoven’s day, is for the soloist to find a unity in the musical styles as they shift from one to the next. Schiff seemed content to take them one at a time, as if he were happy to pick up a rock, turn it over to admire the colors and textures, and then toss it aside and move on to the next one. Each variation had its charms, to be sure, and Schiff seemed most interested in teasing out the wit. The variation that nods to Leporello’s entrance music in Mozart’s Don Giovanni was especially smile-inducing.

If there were a nonchalance about the whole evening, that did not include the thinking behind the program. It makes perfect sense to explore the less familiar side of Bach’s keyboard music, then contrast it with Bartók’s only sonata for the instrument, thus highlighting Beethoven’s biggest piano piece (aside from the sonatas). Even Schiff’s encores reflected that kind of intelligence; in fact, he seemed more energized by Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A Minor and Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro (a short piece written 15 years before the sonata that foresaw its musical language).

Though he is not a flashy pianist, he can highlight colors beautifully. There was much to like in Wednesday’s recital. Maybe it’s not fair, but with a pianist of Schiff’s caliber some of us expect transcendence.

Harvey Steiman