United States Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert: Sir Andras Schiff (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York, 30.10.2015, New York (SSM)
Haydn: Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 52
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Mozart: Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Schumann: Variations for Piano on an Original Theme, WoO 24
Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Looking back at my earlier reviews, I see Sir Andras Schiff’s name appearing in more programs than I would have expected. Aside from his frequent visits as soloist, Schiff has also appeared as an accompanist to outstanding performers and as a conductor from the podium and the piano. His real love is keyboard music from the early Baroque through the middle of the 19th century. Whether it’s his Scarlatti in the 1970s, Bach in the 1980s or Schubert in the 1990s, there is a reliability and consistency that vary little with time.
It might be hard to believe that at one time Schiff was a controversial figure, but his recording of the Goldberg Variations in the 1980s, while nowhere as radical as that of Glenn Gould, riled some critics for its fast tempi and his détaché style. It is still one of the great Goldbergs. As Gould did 25 years after his first Goldberg Variations, Schiff re-recorded his 20 years later; but both versions are less interesting than their forebears.
This evening’s performance was the third recital in a cycle that highlighted the antepenultimate, penultimate and final piano sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. It is an interesting framework, but really makes sense for works that were not only last sonatas but were final works as well, as is the case with Schubert. Mozart’s final keyboard sonata was written two years before he died. He would still compose his clarinet concerto, Così fan tutte , Die Zauberflöte, La Clemenza di Tito and, of course, the Requiem. Beethoven had not yet written his Missa Solemnis, let alone the Ninth Symphony and last quartets. Haydn lived another 15 years after writing his final sonata and had quartets and symphonies as well as the Creation to come. It might be said that the finality of these “last works” are less about the end of life than the end of interest on the part of patrons paying composers to write sonatas, or publishers selling unplayable scores to students and amateurs.
The Haydn that opened the concert suited Schiff well, and he played crisply and brightly, helped by a fine sounding-Steinway, possibly Schiff’s own; at one time he hauled his Bosendorfer with him on concert tours. There was never any melding of notes, aided by his minimal use of the pedals which allows the clarity needed to delineate each musical line. This is life affirming music, very much the opposite of what we think of as final.
Going the rounds of our circumscribed music critics’ world is the appellation “anti-Lang Lang,” as applied to the performance style of a pianist like Schiff. He presents a calm and easy-going demeanor: no hands flying in the air, no bouncing off his stool, the most passionate music deriving its effect from his stillness. Nothing perturbed him. At the close of the Haydn sonata, before he had even finished playing, a bravo broke the silence. Schiff just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
Schiff breezed through the Beethoven without showing any signs of how difficult a piece it is to play. In this regard he is very much like the virtuoso’s virtuoso, Marc-André Hamelin, whose approach to music is surprisingly similar in its lack of affectation and the just plain joy of playing music.
Mozart’s last sonata looks both forward and back: forward to music of greater dissonance and more intricacy and back to Bach in its contrapuntal complexity. I might have wanted a little more flare in the first and last movements, but one could do worse than an approach that draws out the gracefulness and elegance inherent in Mozart’s music.
Schubert’s last sonatas are the only ones that really speak to finality here. These dark-hued works are filled with lovely lyrical melodies that, like the song cycles, get darker and colder as they progress. The penultimate Sonata in A major has an Andantino that must be the saddest music ever written. Schiff took the opening movement of the B-flat major Sonata at a livelier pace than most pianists. But he put us on guard with the ominous trill that rumbles up from the depths early in the sonata and appears again towards the end, each iterance followed by an unusually long silence that does not bode well for what follows. By the end of the movement we were part of Schubert and Schiff’s weltschmerz, not to be released until the applause that started, correctly this time, by the pianist lifting his hands off the keyboard.
The musicology of the “Last Sonatas” project may not be the most rigorous, but an artist like Schiff has no need to convince us of the worthiness of any project he decides to bring before the public.