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The Art of Recital or When Heavenly Length Needs Not to Equal Hellish Boredom

New York
Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
04/11/2023 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Golbderg Variations, BWV 988: Aria – Capriccio in B flat Major “On The Departure of a Beloved Brother”, BWV 992 – A Musical Offering, BWV 1079: Ricercar a tre
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No.16 in B flat Major, K.570 – Fantasia in C Minor, K.475 – Rondo in A Minor, K.511
Joseph Haydn: Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI:20 – Variations in F Minor, Hob.XVII:6
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A Major, D.959

Sir András Schiff (piano)

A. Schiff (© Chris Lee)

Sir András Schiff has been one of the regulars who has graced us with his incomparable art year after year. Alas, he didn’t appear in New York for several years; first there were cancellations caused by the pandemic and then–worse yet–health problems that prevented the ever-reliable artist to cancel his engagements here. This spring, Sir András appears in our city as an artist-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic performing a slew of concerts and acting as recitalist, soloist and conductor with the orchestra, then as a soloist as his friend leads the NY Phil, and finally as a chamber musician, a part that alas, he performs in New York far too seldom.

His recital is presented as part of series called “Artist Spotlight,” offered to musicians of special importance, who curate their own vision of how the program should be developed and delivered. Over the last few years, Sir András has “re‑imagined” the way he presents his recitals–a trend started during the pandemic for many musicians. As he indicated in an interview and also from the stage, he was not happy to play a program he agreed on several years in advance, as is often the case with famous musicians. He claimed he preferred the artistic freedom to play a program he feels like playing. Sometimes he also refers to the creation of his programs in culinary terms, naming them as music “à la carte,” as in the case of a superb restaurant where a chef prepares dishes of high quality, but without announcing them in advance to the patrons.

Nowadays Sir András also announces his sections from the stage. He was never averse to addressing his audiences (in the past it was sometimes a plea to the patrons to allow music to be audible past their coughing...); his BBC lectures on Beethoven Sonatas, or his concert-length commentaries on Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations here in NYC, dwell in memory to this day. His comments are delivered in a manner similar to everything else he does: they are never obtuse, they are precise and informative without being too detailed, they contain an appropriate dose of his sometime understated, sometimes biting humor, and they illustrate the thinking process of this remarkable musician. Maestro Schiff has mastered another very important lesson which is: he knows when to stop. It is not as common among the talking-musicians as one would have imagined.

As for the repertory, in recent years he stays close to his favorites: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, and as he slyly declares, “why not play the best music there is?” For this New York Philharmonic-sponsored recital, he stayed close to the composers presented in the orchestra’s program: Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. Of course, we didn’t know the works in advance. The piano used for this recital was a splendid Bösendorfer Grand rather than the usual Steinway that our pianist often favors. It was easy to understand his preference; this Viennese-made instrument produced not only a gorgeous sound–YES, the pianist’s fingers surely helped!–but also quite distinct registers for the top, middle and particularly rich but not thunderous bottom, and in the repertory we heard, it made a huge difference.

When Mr. Schiff appeared on stage, he went straight to the piano and commenced to play the Aria from, what he refers to, as the “so-called Goldberg Variations.” When he picked up his microphone and greeted the audience, he declared that it was an encore, and the reason for playing the encore at the beginning of the program rather than at the end was connected to the work he is playing at the end, after which one should not play one more note. In his usual self-effacing, droll manner he informed his audience that this evening he will play only the great works since life is too short to play bad music. As far a choice of composers, the program was devoted to Haydn, Mozart and Schubert: the same ones whose works would be presented at his orchestral concerts with the New York Philharmonic just three days later.

First however, he returned to the music of his idol J.S. Bach, and offered us his early work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, which is a short suite of six short segments, each illustrating the parting procedure. As he talked us through this charming piece, he illustrated with one hand–the other holding the microphone–its themes and motifs, which included even the sound of a neighing horse. The concluding jaunty fugue is based on the coachman’s bugle and if it sounds familiar even to the people who are not acquainted with this Capriccio, it might be because it bears a strong resemblance to the other quite famous work, Glenn Gould’s witty parody called So you want to write a fugue? (which is actually a very well‑written takeoff on a real fugue). It may be my imagination, but Sir András’ typical style of Bach playing, to which we have been accustomed for decades, might have changed a bit: what remains is his incredible clarity and delineation of voicing, lively spirit and a sense of dance; what seemed to be different is a slightly softer, more caressing touch, which might be attributed to the Maestro’s daily practicing on the clavichord, known for its soft sound, and no need to use any force. Altogether it was an admirable rendition of a work Schiff champions quite frequently. The work is in the key of B flat Major and our artist remained with that tonality for the next work, Mozart Sonata K.570.

Schiff’s Mozart playing is also the stuff of legends but there are some salient characteristics that seem to be always present. In matters of tempo, he follows the example of two other great pianists, Polish Mieczyslaw Horszowski and German Wilhelm Kempff; they were quite strange soul mates, and I always thought that Schiff’s penchant for the tempo choices is influenced by those two. Therefore, the allegros are never too fast, and each note is delineated and has meaning, and the adagios are never dragging and never lose the pulse–their vocal line couldn’t be vocal if one was not able to sing it! The opera is never far away from any Mozart composition, and creating the operatic climate is never far away from Schiff. So we had some playful change of characters in the opening Allegro, some operatic cantilena in Adagio, and playfulness in finale Allegretto. In the past, when commenting on Schiff’s Mozart’s interpretations, I always mentioned his art of playing fast notes in a melodic manner, of not allowing any blurred notes, and of delivering melodic lines that sing and speak in the vocal manner.

The other important aspect of Mozart performances is the manner in which the ornamentation is applied. Ornamentation is nothing more than embellishing the melodic line, and serves the same purpose as traditional make-up: skillfully applied, it enhances one’s appearance, but poorly applied...well, we have a different, less appealing, outcome. Sir András’ idea of ornamenting baroque or classical scores seems to be that less is more. Thus he was quite judicious in applying added notes to a Mozart sonata: when he did, it was always in impeccable style. In Sonata K.570, he added just a bit in the 1st movement, a bit more in vocal lines of the Adagio and he went ahead in the finale Allegretto. One could say that it was a master class in understatement.

The next pair of works was again by J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart, and here Sir András provided us with a fascinating narrative. He stressed that Mozart’s interest in improving his counterpoint skills was related to the visit at the important private collection belonging to the Baron van Swieten and studying scores of J.S. Bach, who by that time was practically forgotten. One may recall van Swieten as one of the characters in the legendary film Amadeus. From that point, Mozart’s compositions, in the words of our narrator, gained a new dimension, and became more complex and interesting. Then Sir András showed us perhaps the most remarkable thematic relation between the opening themes of J.S. Bach Ricercare from Das Musicalische Opfer and that of Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor. The theme of Mozart is a carbon copy of Bach’s theme, first used when the Kantor from Leipzig visited the German town of Potsdam and there, the story goes, he met the celebrated King Frederick the Great. That enlightened ruler was also an excellent flutist and quite a decent composer. He presented Bach with the theme–Schiff called it “the royal theme”–to improvise a fugue, which Bach apparently did so skillfully that he came back home significantly richer. Bach’s own dissatisfaction with the original improvisation called for the theme to be reworked into a large-scale, several-movement composition based on that “royal” theme, or a theme “to fit the King”. As for Mozart’s Fantasia often combined in piano recitals with the Sonata bearing the same key, Schiff sees in it an operatic scene, a mini Don Giovanni squeezed into under 10 minutes. He demonstrated the themes that would/could belong to Don Ottavio, Donna Anna or Leporello. Even if it might not have been Mozart’s own intention, Maestro Schiff makes a compelling case for his own purpose. Incidentally Bach’s Ricercare a Tre (three‑part fugue) was the only work the New York audiences had not heard previously, as it is in a relatively new position in the pianist’s vast repertory. Fantasia received an appropriately dramatic rendering with the opera references illuminated nicely.

We stayed with the key of C Minor for the next major work of the program, Haydn’s Sonata in C Minor, which this time our pianist referred to as the first great piano sonata, a statement with which I have no intention of disagreeing; it is also a very dark, proto-Romantic and proto-Beethovenian work in three movements. There is more room for drama than elegance and it has more rustic character than one coming from aristocratic salons. András Schiff was Haydn’s champion for the longest time: if today he regrets that this composer is still underappreciated, my own regret is that Sir András abandoned this master more than two decades ago; wouldn’t it be splendid if he went back to the recording studio and continued the extraordinary cycle that he prematurely abandoned in the late 90s?

Just as we thought that the time of intermission arrived, Maestro treated us to yet another exemplary, consummate interpretation of Haydn’s Variations in F Minor: that work that sometimes seems to lead nowhere or sound just boring under the hands of less capable pianists, sounded revelatory as presented by Schiff. In particular, it gave this listener a new appreciation for this complex work, whose trajectory eludes most performances, with the result of degradation into monotonous sobriety. Not in this case: I felt like I was hearing aspects of the composition that I had never previously encountered. And thus 110 minutes after we started, we arrived at the end of the first segment of the program. Did I mention that all of those works Maestro performed without the score, which also applied to second half of the program, itself an hour in length.

Sir András commenced the second “smaller half” with words of thanks to the audience for staying. Well, the fault was not entirely of the folks that were misled by the announcement in the program booklet that the concert will be offered without an intermission. So some folks left unintentionally and God, did they miss some fantastic playing! For the second part of his recital, Sir András planned only two works: one again by Mozart, his incomparable Rondo in A minor and to stay in the key of A, Schubert’s penultimate Sonata in A major, which Schiff declared as Schubert’s greatest. His performance left no room for disagreement.

The Rondo, Mozart’s late work, is perhaps his most “Chopinesque” and most decorative of all his piano music. If you play the opening measure of this work and Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor op.34 No.2, a listener who knows neither of those two works may conceivably get confused. Here Schiff again showed his mastery of legato playing, beautifully illuminating the upper voice and not covering it with the difficult accompaniment played by the same hand. The tempo was brisk, but one never experienced a feeling of rushing. There is a harmonic relation of the closing section of the Rondo and a section in the last movement of the sonata: they are both relying on the so called “Neapolitan chord,” as Beethoven did in the closing moment of the 1st movement of Sonata in C sharp minor, known as the “Moonlight.”

In the last four decades of attending András Schiff’s New York recitals, I have heard him play the Sonata in A Major several times, most recently during his three-recital traversal of the last three sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert at Carnegie Hall some five years ago. I don’t recall ever being as moved and impressed by his performance as I was this time. As always, I was taken by the narration; the discreet, subtle tempo fluctuation; by the declamation of vocal lines; by the creation of beautiful, ringing sound in the upper register, balanced with the richness of the bass line; by the finely etched and illuminated details.

When talking about the 2nd movement Andantino, Sir András called it an apocalyptic depiction of the Last Judgement. I always regarded the middle section of that movement as one of perhaps the most hallucinatory, demented, delirious, nightmarish moments of all the music of that era, though Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique came pretty close. Under Schiff’s hands, that oft enigmatic and explosive segment conveyed a sense of catastrophe, yet it carried an unbending logic. The Scherzo was unusually lightweight and charming with the middle episode dancing nicely, and the Finale flew by luxuriously and sang its tune with a delicate affection. Our master created an incredible tension in the last few measures and held the last low A for what seemed like an eternity. Luckily, the audience allowed him to conclude the piece in total silence.

As promised, in spite of several callbacks by the highly appreciative audience and a prolonged standing ovation, Sir András kept to his word and played no post‑concert encore. For once, one could subscribe to his logic: the memory of the conclusion of the Schubert was the perfect close to a truly epic event–one that no attendee will soon forget. Once in a blue moon, one attends a concert or recital where there prevails a dominating feeling of satisfaction: everything we listen to seems just right, there are no comparisons coming to mind or critical thoughts where one would wish this or that was executed in a more perfect manner. This recital was just such an occasion; one allowed oneself to sit and listen and also to recognize that music making doesn’t come much better.

Roman Markowicz



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