Sir András Schiff’s Enrichening Private World Reaches to Brahms

CanadaCanada Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven: Sir András Schiff (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 10.4.2018. (GN)

András Schiff (c) Nadia F. Romanini

SchumannGeistervariationen WoO.24
Brahms – Three Intermezzos Op.117; Six Piano Pieces Op.118; Four Piano Pieces Op.119
Mozart – Rondo in A minor K.511
Bach – Prelude and Fugue No.24 in B minor BWV869
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E-flat major Op.81a ‘Les Adieux’

Sir András Schiff’s traversal of the ‘last’ sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert has yielded three sterling concerts over the past two years, and it would be difficult to ask for anything more. Nonetheless, the pianist’s fascination with late works continued unabated in the current concert, featuring two of the same composers, dipping back to Bach and adding, most significantly, Brahms. For all one might think of Schiff as a supreme custodian of the piano music of all the German masters, the remaining gap is Brahms. Though he has increasingly performed Brahms in recital in recent years, his few extant recordings date from much earlier days and include only a couple of solo pieces and the D minor concerto. It was worth waiting for the Piano Pieces Op.117, 118, 119: this performance was truly special, revealing a masterly absorption of the composer’s architecture and spirit, demonstrably as penetrating as his Schubert and Beethoven.

The only complication for the listener was Schiff’s decision to play his programme essentially without pause. Both halves featured three composers and ran continuously for 45 minutes each, with applause only at the end. This seems to be Schiff’s way now, offering long and concentrated recitals where the contrapuntal and harmonic synergies of all the composers from Bach to Brahms can be put together to create a certain unity and transcendence. It may not be everyone’s preferred format, but there is little doubt that it has a magic of its own.

No matter where one touched down in this recital, the unifying ingredient was the splendour of Schiff’s artistry: his architectural and poetic grasp, his cunningly-projected lyrical and rhapsodic line, his lucidity and tonal balance – ‘making every note count’ – and the deep feeling he found in all the fragile corners of the composers’ utterances. If an artist wanted to reveal the essence of old age, there are many works they might start from, but Schumann’s ‘Ghost Variations’, written in his final days of mental failing, seemed like a fine choice. Schiff gave these pieces particularly telling projection, often opening out a wondrous cantabile expanse, suggestive of a fragile world that always flows onwards but sometimes hints at a fleeting grandeur too. The wistful melancholy of the three Intermezzi from Brahms Op.117 then summoned a more searching and rhapsodic posture, Schiff serving as a sensitive guide to their inward contemplation and struggle as well as their tonal synergy. Here I felt a full awareness of the Brahmsian musical fabric, though Schubert’s sense of desolation might have made a momentary appearance too.

After a finely-drawn reading of Mozart’s famous Rondo K.511, the six pieces of Brahms Op.118 brought greater absorption. One had to be taken with the structural delineation and emotional power in the opening Intermezzo and the glorious Ballade (No.3): the long span of the lines, the complex motion and determination and – always – the underlying Brahmsian flow. The more inward pieces maintained a heartfelt quality, sometimes gentle and musing, other times probing a darker mystery, yet all had a wonderful narrative line and sense of rhapsodic building. It was striking how quiet and delicate much of the presentation was, yet the human warmth was considerable. Schiff only sought strenuous double-forte chords selectively, and when these were hammered home, they meant something very important; dynamics were always terraced to achieve a natural sense of resolution. Moreover, the way Schiff suspended the harmonic line and cleanly articulated his counterpoint and trills yielded extra insight into the genius of these pianistic constructions.

The foundations of these constructions flow right back to the master, J. S. Bach himself, and the second half started with the final Prelude and Fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier – just for reference. Then on to the four pieces of Brahms’ Op.119: after the questioning No.1, these were presented almost as an escape from the burden of the pieces of the first half. One suddenly felt the clouds lifting. Nos.2 and 3 conveyed a beautifully airy sense of freedom and ease and, at times, fanciful delight, with everything brought home by the confirming weight of the closing Rhapsodie.

All the Brahms was most satisfying, and worthy of being mentioned alongside the classic expositions of Wilhelm Kempff, Radu Lupu and Stephen Kovacevich. While I would have been quite happy to call it a night at this point, Schiff’s interest in the link to Bach’s counterpoint was not finished, and the concert closed with a rather unique, almost deconstructive, treatment of Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata. This was full of rough, brazen blocks of structure, contrapuntal insistence and special concern for the way imitative phrases answer each other. It differed notably from Schiff’s presentation of Beethoven’s last three sonatas in the previous concerts in that it was less cloaked in lyrical fabric. The terse angularity was illuminating in many ways, and it did add up to a rather ‘fantastical’ experience by the closing fugue – likely Schiff’s intellectual intent. Nonetheless, some of the emphasis (e.g. the stark contrasts in the opening movement and the Andante) seemed to place the reading on the didactic side. Of course, the concert wasn’t quite over: an enticing encore of Bach’s Capriccio in B flat major BWV992 (‘On the Departure of a Beloved Brother’) brought us full circle.

This was an illuminating evening, unique in the way it unfolded in one suspended and concentrated arc, almost as a private disquisition on musical history, and united through the splendours of Sir András Schiff’s Brahms.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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