A Masterful Recital from Sir András Schiff 

CanadaCanada Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert: András Schiff (piano), Chan Centre, Vancouver, BC, 1.3.2015 (GN)

Haydn: Sonata No. 60 in C major, Hob. XV1:50
Beethoven: Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
Mozart: Sonata in C major, K. 545
Schubert: Sonata in C minor, D. 958

Just a week ago, pianist Steven Osborne offered us immensely probing accounts of three ‘late’ Beethoven sonatas. Now Sir András Schiff arrives to perform ‘late’ sonatas of four composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Perhaps a concert of only posthumous works is next! In any case, it must be a source of great joy to the Vancouver Recital Society to have promoted this artist many times when he was younger (as early as 1982) and to have him turn out to be a knighted master. While Schiff has given us considerable Bach over the years – including Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier last time – this outing was a delightful sample of the full range of his art.

The event did not disappoint, producing the type of exalted experience that one should expect from a master of the keyboard. All the Schiff trademarks were there: the keen intelligence in phrasing and texture, the warm shaping, and the acute understanding of contrast and dramatic weight. Then there is the astonishing keyboard control that yields such balance in both hands and clarity in counterpoint. It is indeed noteworthy that Schiff’s responses to some of these works now seem deeper and more decisive compared to his earlier interpretations.

From his first recordings on Decca and Teldec decades ago, there has never been any doubt about the pianist’s authority in Haydn and Mozart. Schiff’s approach has never been a forthright one, but it is so intelligent and finds many deep and subtle corners. From the way the pianist savoured the detached notes of the puckish opening of Haydn’s Sonata No. 60, one could tell that a feast of characterization was in store. His progression into the wonderful key modulations later in the opening movement was negotiated with just the right care and patience, a feeling that was consistently reinforced throughout the sonata. Yet there was ample play and enviable structural awareness too. The Adagio was deeply felt, always sure in line, moving at times into a Bach-like pensiveness that often captivates this pioneer of Bach on the piano. The finale was not short of brusque dramatic effects but combined them most effectively with the movement’s wit and momentum. The jeweled clarity and polished finish of the articulation were everywhere apparent.

 One often regards Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 545 as a beginner’s piece, and a very metrical treatment can certainly make it sound so. Schiff dug into this work more seriously and brought considerable strength and feeling to it. The first movement’s famous tune was, of course, played deliciously, but soon one noticed an almost Haydnesque cogency, eventually withdrawing to more melancholic statements of the opening motif.  Remarkable little trills abounded throughout. The following movement was beautifully poised but also yielding and thoughtful, while the motion of the closing Rondo was superbly negotiated.

 The special performance was that of the Schubert Sonata in C minor, D. 958. This sonata is clearly the most compact of the composer’s last three, sometimes seeming as terse as Beethoven, and I have always wanted to hear an interpretation that made its sense of journey comparable to the later A major, D. 959 and the heavenly B-flat major, D. 960. Schiff’s interpretation came pretty close. While in some ways deliberate and methodical, by seemingly opening out a repeat in the first movement and occasionally hinting at the feeling of the composer’s Wanderer Fantasy, the pianist made this movement seem longer and more complex, with a fuller and more spontaneous lyrical line to balance against its dramatic attack. How this was done was hardly straightforward: there were high-strung surges of intensity and a variety of tender moments too – but they all seemed to add up. In the Adagio, the important dramatic statements were strongly etched, but still the attitude was often warmer and more cultivated, seeking out interesting passages of counterpoint to achieve a different type of depth. Plasticity of phrasing hallmarked the Menuetto, while the closing movement frequently mirrored the emotional range of the first. This finale must have rhythmic discipline and spring – and it did – but again a lot of telling counterpoint was brought out; even a soft dreaminess sometimes appeared. Nonetheless, it was the pianist’s steady increase in assertiveness and fire and his sterling sense of integration that brought the work home with compelling force – a truly splendid journey that I think actually raised the stature of this work.

 There was more adroit control in Schiff’s Beethoven Sonata No. 30, but this is where my response must be more qualified. The E major may seem like a gentle, almost intimate, sonata for Beethoven, but it is his penultimate work in this genre and its sharp lines and tensions are fully etched in stone. From the outset, Schiff tended to soften these lines and put a more romantic flow in place. Some of the compulsive motion and yielding phrases early on seemed very much akin to the Schumann Fantasy, and I think the idea of the work as a ‘fantasia’ was never far away. Very intriguing and illuminating in its own way, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I think the consistent rubato and expression did tend to overload the work, undermining its simple, crystalline beauty. In principle, the sonata should appear to move forward with its own natural inevitability, not as if guided by human hands.

 This was an intense and demanding recital but the artist’s concentration never faltered for a second. If there might have been a few questions to ponder after the Beethoven in the first half, there were certainly none after the Schubert at the end, and the artist received a deservedly long and tumultuous ovation.  He then closed with two Schubert encores: the appealing Hungarian Melody in B minor, D. 817 and the ever-popular Impromptu No.2 in E flat Major, Op.90.


Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com

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