A panoply of pleasures with András Schiff in Los Angeles

United StatesUnited States Various: Sir Andras Schiff (piano). Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 11.10.2022. (DLD)

Andras Schiff © Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

BachGoldberg Variations, BWV988, Aria; Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV971; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV903
Haydn – Piano Sonata No.33 in C minor, Hob.XVI/20
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.17 in D Minor, ‘Tempest’
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Schubert – Piano Sonata No.20 in A major, D959

Sir András Schiff has long been praised as one of the most accomplished pianists and conductors in the world of ‘art music’. He arrived at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with yet another carefully curated body of keyboard works that included pieces by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

Schiff began the program with one of J. S. Bach’s most admired solo keyboard compositions: the Aria from what Schiff dryly referred to as ‘the so-called Goldberg Variations’. After the Aria, he took to the microphone and spoke to the audience, which certainly differs from past performances that I have attended. He explained that there would be no encore because the final piece on the program, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, should not have an encore – all that needs to be said has already been said.

There were some highly memorable moments in Schiff’s commentary to the audience. At one point he asked, ‘What is the future of classical music? There are too many rituals connected to classical music’. He had tired of having to come up with a program three years ahead of a performance, which often leads audiences to ‘over-familiarize themselves with a single “best” recording of those pieces in advance’, creating disappointment and diminishing returns for all involved. During the pandemic, he had time to think how he might do things differently, such as deciding on a program closer to the time of the performance.

Following the Aria was Bach’s Italian Concerto in F Major, another beautiful example of the technique of composition. It is a three-movement wonder, beginning with a balanced melody presented in a manner that was settled and straightforward, followed by a second movement with a repeated baseline and augmented with a tensely driven melody, and a final movement filled with good tidings and joy. The performance was exceedingly pianistic, the clarity marvelous and the applause greatly deserved. It should be added that his third movement differed from all other versions I have heard (and that’s a lot) in terms of both tempo (a tad slower) and dynamics (a spot softer). It should also be noted that balance between the upper and lower parts was modified by pianistic possibilities and demands. Voicing is of great importance to Schiff, especially when primary voices occur in inner voices: it is the bass line that drives the composition.

The Italian Concerto was followed by Haydn’s Piano Sonata No.33 in C minor. Before playing, Schiff commented that Haydn is the most ‘underrated composer in the world’. Credited with sixty-two piano sonatas in his long and fruitful career, Haydn is often referred to as the ‘inventor’ of the sonata-allegro form. To my ears, his works are amazing devices of balance, within measures, within phrases, within movements and, indeed, within the entirety of the piece. The balance was clear in this sonata, one which I had not heard before. I would unquestionably enjoy listening to and analyzing it even more carefully were it not for the remaining sixty-one sonatas that compete for my attention. That being said, Haydn’s Sonata No.33 was an absolute pleasure: Schiff’s interpretation was nearly perfect in its balance, open in its expression, relatively flawless on a technical level and deeply human in its interpretation.

Schiff returned to Bach for the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, a work of great power and emotion, and open to a variety of interpretations. The transition from the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue to Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata was seamless: Schiff sustained the final tone, only to easily shift straight into the ‘Tempest’ with no break between the two pieces, no applause, just silence. It worked beautifully, and he made it sound so easy.

When Anton Schindler, who was in many ways Beethoven’s closest aide, asked Beethoven who his musical rival was, he got the reply ‘There is none’. It is a lovely answer, if only for its multiple possible meanings. Does Beethoven openly accept other composers at sound value, or does he reject other composers for differences in chord constructions? Much – and sometimes all – of the excellence of music is tied to the ear of the listener.

The ‘Tempest’ Sonata seems to transcend subjectivities entirely, and it belongs in an elite group of ‘there’s nothing better’. It is a great piece of music no matter what the opinion of the past, current or future listener. Schiff’s more leisurely tempo, especially in the fourth movement, brought up new and different points of aural interpretation.

Following a brief intermission, Mozart’s Rondo K511, a singular experience, opened the second half of the program. It consists of one movement that lasts well under ten minutes, it lacks complexity and the melody (‘tune’, if you prefer) is simple and straightforward. There is a major key break towards the middle of the rondo, which moves back to the minor key again, only to close with a relatively brief round-up. In Schiff’s introduction, he explained his fondness for it: it reminds him of ‘something from the Romantic era’, almost as if it was ahead of the time in its phrasing and melodic structure. The delicacy with which Schiff performed the piece brought out those qualities and, at times, made the Mozart sound evocative of Chopin’s keyboard work. This is fitting, as Schiff also noted that Chopin was a great lover of Mozart.

Schiff ended the recital with Schubert’s Piano Sonata No.20, which is filled with surprises. His melodies are universally acclaimed for their elegance and perfection, and he often uses surprising and sudden changes in key and tempo, with unexpected time alterations and pauses in pulse, and sudden changes to and from differing keys. Schiff described the opening of the Andantino as being ‘like the rowing of a boat on a lake’ but with overtones of existential despair instead of pastoral tranquility. His playing was measured and emotionally raw, with darker passages of the Andantino and Scherzo in sharp contrast with the delicate ones that surround them. It was one of the most moving musical experiences I have had in a long time.

Schiff certainly possesses his own distinctive manner of playing and performing. The physical stamina required for this demanding program seemed not to faze him: he played with a lightness, precision and ease one might expect from a much younger pianist. What came through was the pure joy that music gives him. We were the lucky recipients!

Douglas Dutton

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