Sir András Schiff Impresses Particularly in Bach and Janáček

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Bartók, Janáček, Schumann:  Sir András Schiff (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.2.2016. (RB)

Bach – Five Sinfonias BWV787-791; Five Sinfonias BWV 792-796; Five Sinfonias BWV797-801

Bartók – Suite for Piano BB70 Op.14; Szabadban (Out of Doors) BB89 Nos. 1-3; Szabadban (Out of Doors) BB89 Nos. 4-5

Janáček – Sonata I.X.1905 ‘From the Street’

Schumann – Piano Sonata No.1 in F Sharp minor Op 11  ‘Grosse Sonate’

Sir András Schiff opened his Wigmore Hall recital with a short talk about the pieces on the programme interspersed with comments about current political developments.  He recounted the story of having a piano lesson with György Kurtág on one of the Bach Sinfonias when he was 13:  three and a half hours later they had only got to bar four! Kurtág impressed on him the greatness of this music and told him that it would one day be his responsibility to perform it in public.  Schiff moved from anecdotes about his past growing up in Hungary to more recent developments.  His criticisms of Viktor Orbán’s government have been widely reported and he took the opportunity to raise these concerns again, saying that he did not want to visit Hungary because of current political developments.  He talked about Bartók’s opposition to the Nazis during the Second World War even thought there was no need for him to have taken this stance as he was not Jewish and his music was not on any proscribed list.  Bartók with his ethnographic research was an internationalist who sought to build bridges between people rather than walls (take a bow President Trump!).  For those people who thought musicians should stay out of politics, Schiff told them to ask Mr Beethoven about that.  Schiff’s eloquent intervention is most welcome and a strong example of the important role leading musicians can play in wider public debate in our own increasingly turbulent times.  Recent developments in the UK such as the reported spike in hate crimes following the Brexit Referendum show the need to oppose publicly all forms of discrimination and how important it is not to scapegoat migrants or minorities because of wider societal problems.

Schiff played through both halves of the recital without any breaks and he interspersed the fifteen Bach Sinfonias with Bartók’s two Suites in order to illuminate the connections between the two composers.  He opted to play on a Bösendorfer with its singing tone and rich bass rather than the more usual Steinway.  Schiff is of course one of the greatest living interpreters of Bach and he did not disappoint in this performance of the Sinfonias.  The three independent voices were delineated with pellucid clarity and each of the pieces were vividly characterised.  There was elegant shaping of the line and elasticity in the phrasing in the C major, playful contrapuntal exchanges in the D major, a wonderful intellectual luminosity in the D minor, and a brightness and rhythmic buoyancy in the F major.  The chromaticisms of the great F minor Sinfonia were played with weight and intensity and there was a sense of the portentous running through this short piece, transforming it into a condensed version of the Christian Passion.

Schiff has produced some of the greatest live performances of Bartók I have ever heard but I was not entirely convinced by his performance on this occasion.  In the Op 14 Suite I was impressed with the muscularity and rhythmic drive he brought to the third movement and the degree of clarity be brought to the ingenious Arabic scale in the left hand although the tempo was a little slow for Allegro molto.  The final Sostenuto was highly expressive with Schiff doing a marvellous job sustaining the haunting threnody while using the full resources of the Bösendorfer to conjure up Bartók’s evocation of the night.  However, the second movement scherzo came across as a little too studied and calculated and I would have liked Schiff to bring out more of the jagged edges in the music.  The Night’s Music was the high point of the Out of Doors Suite with Schiff conjuring up Bartók’s nocturnal insect sounds in a highly imaginative way.  The spectral meandering lines of the Barcarolla were beautifully shaped and played with consummate touch while the wheezing of the bagpipes was artfully conveyed in Musettes. I would have welcomed a greater degree of spontaneity in the outer two movements where Schiff seemed to be obsessing a little too much over details.  There needed to be more aggression and rhythmic punch in both movements and a faster tempo in The Chase.

The high point of the recital came at the start of the second half with Schiff’s wonderful, poetic performance of the Janáček Sonata.  This overtly political work was written in the aftermath of a demonstration at Brno where a 21-year-old student was fatally wounded by a bayonet.  Janáček was outraged and wrote this work as a memorial to these events.  In the opening movement Schiff captured to perfection the sense of aspiration and yearning which runs through this quintessentially Czech music.  He ensured the threat of violence was very tangible by making the composer’s hard edged motifs sound almost like gunshots.  There was a sense of palpable anguish at the climax points where Schiff used Janáček’s engulfing textures to maximise the emotional power of this work.  The slow movement, entitled Death, was a rapt, mesmerising piece of playing.  Schiff distilled the poetic essence of the work with playing of enormous eloquence and power.

The final work on this long programme was Schumann’s F Sharp minor Sonata which Schiff in his introductory comments described as a manic depressive piece.  There was much to admire in this performance although again I had slightly mixed feelings about it.  The introductory section had a direct emotional impact which I liked enormously – this was red blooded, impassioned playing which commanded attention from the outset.  The ensuing Allegro Vivace was a little too fastidious for my taste although I liked Schiff’s handling of the composer’s manic shifts of mood in the development section.  The slow movement was gorgeous with the opening melody seeming to float in an ethereal way.  Schiff allowed the music to blossom beautifully by giving us subtle gradations in colour and texture.  The dotted rhythms of the scherzo were played with finger bending gusto although I would have liked a little more humour and pomposity in the two trios.  Schiff opened the finale in a brisk business-like way and proceeded to produce an array of contrasting textures and sonorities.  I enjoyed his handling of the mercurial contrasts in the music although some of the shifts in tempo sounded a little exaggerated.

Great playing once again from Sir András Schiff particularly in the Bach and Janáček.

Robert Beattie

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