Music review: András Schiff at Strathmore

MORE THAN PRETTY: Andras Schiff handled the difficult pieces with nimble intensity.
MORE THAN PRETTY: Andras Schiff handled the difficult pieces with nimble intensity. (Dieter Mayr)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010

András Schiff, the pianist, seems to move in his own atmosphere, with his own lighting. He conveys a sense of serenity that is slightly otherworldly. It's a cliche to ascribe saintly features to classical musicians, but Schiff is certainly an easy surface on which to project such ideas. Gliding out onto the stage at Strathmore on Wednesday night, as if buoyed, balloonlike, by his large head with its cloud of graying curls, he sat at the piano and laid his hands on the keys with a preternatural calm, enhancing the romantic sense that the music was an act of communion.

Romantic was appropriate, since the concert was yet another celebration of the bicentennial year of the much-feted and quintessentially romantic Robert Schumann. It came courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which offered another helping of Schumann's piano music from Mitsuko Uchida earlier this spring. Uchida, however, contented herself with the "Davidsbündlertänze"; Schiff, by contrast, went all out with performances of no fewer than four of what one might term Schumann's piano cycles: bouquets of short, expressive, contrasting works.

In addition to the "Davidsbündlertänze" (a lumpy title that lumpily translates as "Dances of the League of David," a fictional construct of the composer's), there were the familiar "Kinderszenen" ("Scenes from Childhood"), the Symphonic etudes, and "Waldszenen" ("Forest Scenes"), the composer's last major piano work before he descended into madness, tried to kill himself by jumping into the Rhine, and ended his days in an asylum (see "romantic," above).

It takes a narrative sense to play these pieces well, and narrative is something that Schiff is very good at. For all of the ethereal qualities of his touch and demeanor, his is a storyteller's gift; he cast himself into the brusque joviality of the Hunter's song in "Waldszenen," or propelled himself giddily through "Ungeduld" ("Impatience") in "Davidsbündlertänze," without self-consciousness, shifting shapes fluidly rather than striking a series of poses. He particularly excelled at the transitions, evoking the change from one mood or scene to another with absolute clarity, so that there was never any doubt where you were and what was going on.

One could quibble, especially on the first half of the program, that he was too gentle, too ethereal and too focused on the narrative, sometimes at the cost of a dropped note or two. There was no lack of fervor, or of speed, but, at times, of incisiveness.

But the Symphonic etudes put to rest any notion that Schiff was merely a pretty player. These early works, their individual variations marked only with tempo descriptions rather than the evocative titles of the sections of "Kinderszenen" ("Traeumerei"), are fiendishly difficult, and Schiff unsheathed a new kind of steel, a bright strong tempest of sound that, with a final sleight of hand, he brought to an easy, spontaneous conclusion.

Even after the applause, he didn't break character; this was a Schumann evening. His generous encore was not a single piece, but another entire cycle: the bright flutters and gyrations of "Papillons."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company