Unity and Consistency in Schiff’s Vision of Schubert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: András Schiff (piano), Oxford Philomusica Piano Festival, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 28.7.2013 (CR)

Piano Sonata in G major, D 894
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D 960

In the first recital of this year’s Oxford Philomusica Piano Festival, András Schiff presented two of Schubert’s late sonatas in a characteristically thoughtful, unhurried manner. However, far from seeing these works as mystically transcending the sorrows which Schubert felt in the last few years of his life, Schiff evoked in them a world-weary character. There was repose on the one hand, while the more dramatic outbursts were given their full weight on the other, so the effect was of a worn-down acceptance of fate’s buffetings, rather than terrified bewilderment at intractable forces.

The lyrical opening melodies of both sonatas were grounded very much in the here-and-now instead of floating off into seamless ethereality, and there was particular resonance in the repeated chords of the bass part in the opening of D 894, like a drone. Those darker moments when the music turns to the minor key in the latter sonata were shaded with a sullen intensity without disturbing the overall mood of composure. For example, the stark iterations of the first movement’s motto long-short-long figure in the development did not overwhelm the general impression as Schiff modulated smoothly back to the calm atmosphere of the recapitulation. Likewise the repeated groups of four quavers in the Menuetto were played as a nervous stutter rather than a gesture of defiance. Nonetheless Schiff drew a contrast between this and the quintessential Schubertian radiance of the Trio section, by delineating its lightly swaying, monotonous rhythm with a character of great delicacy and vulnerability, calling to mind the last song of Die Schöne Müllerin. Only in the finale did Schiff import a wilder character to this sonata, with the playfulness of the returning rondo theme contrasted strongly with more passionate episodes, so that the movement seemed flustered – but still by no means agonised or tortured.

Schiff seemed to regard each sonata as an emotional and structural unity, not only by keeping the expressive range of the music under close control, but also by allowing each movement to follow on from the previous one quite quickly, to minimise any rupture in mood. As a result, both works took on the character of a sonata quasi una fantasia, as though emanating from a single, distilled state of mind.

Initially in D 960 – Schubert’s last sonata – Schiff forged no obvious connection between the moments of contemplation and the angrier outbursts: for example the tremolo deep in the bass near the beginning of the first movement was ignored. It therefore seemed more threatening as a consequence of not being confronted immediately, and eventually the presence of trouble could not be avoided. The more lyrically relaxed passages became correspondingly more wilful, even defensively triumphant, by the end of the first movement, as the contrasting sections were made darker by Schiff.

The slow movement conjured a world of bleakness, still burdened by sorrow. In the transformation of the opening sobbing passage into the major key, Schiff did not allow much light, and in the ostensibly brighter middle section, as the music apparently offers a vision of renewed life, his performance still looked back with regret as though there were something still holding the music back from release and resolution. More energy was brought to bear in the Scherzo, whose dance-like agility was also taken forwards into the finale. That was not the occasion for victory or consummation however: instead, the finale was the medium for a great deal of soul-searching and an almost desperate traversal of many of the moods covered by Schiff in the course of both Sonatas. The outcome was not so much a case of Schubert’s giving up because of not being equal to the struggle, but simply succumbing to the inevitable without hysteria or pain. It therefore made a coherent and emotionally satisfactory conclusion to the recital as a whole, and demonstrated the unity and consistency in Schiff’s mature vision of works with which he has lived for a considerable period of time.

Such an outlook also informed Schiff’s brisk account of the Impromptu No.3 in G flat major D 899 as the first encore, but some relief was offered by the quiet and warm singing tone brought out of the piano in the Moment Musical No.4 in C sharp minor D 780, played as the second.

Curtis Rogers