For the past two years, Sir András Schiff has been focused on “The Last Sonatas” — a three-concert traversal of the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. These concerts, which he has performed around the world, arrived in Washington last March and have been among the city’s signal cultural events. On Wednesday night at Strathmore, the final installment was all one had come to expect from the first two: flawless, self-effacing, understated and spiritual.
This reverential approach is perfectly understandable when dealing with the very pinnacles of Western art. Schiff did not devour these masterpieces but cupped them gently in his hands and admired them in the light as one would a Fabergé egg. Over a long evening, though, I came to wish for a little more impetuosity, a little less refinement. One can overdo investing every phrase with the gravitas of a Final Utterance by the Master. Schubert’s last sonata, D. 960, finished weeks before his death, does indeed seem to be gazing down into the abyss. But the other three composers, when they wrote their last piano sonatas, all had years to live and many large-scale pieces yet to come.
Schiff’s vision, however, was to drive home the finality (or futility) of everything. He made sure each note was heard cleanly; tempos were moderate to sedate, dynamics literal and perfectly graded; and each phrase had a clear beginning, middle and end. His habit of changing tempos for different emotional states was mostly held in check in this performance.
Still, the worshipful atmosphere ultimately became oppressive. The thunderbolts in the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111 were carefully placed, not hurled, and the “boogie-woogie” variation in the second movement felt like an old man forced to dance with his granddaughter. The finales of the Haydn and Mozart sonatas could certainly have had more sparkle, more virtuosity (of which Schiff has plenty). The famous low, dark trill in the opening of the Schubert was slow, almost gentle, like a snoring beast without any menace.
These are subjective quibbles. We are speaking of one of the world’s consummate pianists, and one could revel in the pure pleasure of the sounds he drew from the instrument (a Bösendorfer). Schiff took us, in many ways, closer to the Infinite. I wished only for a little more earthiness.
The program was a presentation of Washington Performing Arts.