To attend an Andras Schiff recital is to enter a secular temple to music. The eminent Hungarian-born British pianist carries himself like a high priest of Viennese classicism, communing with the musical gods with an air of becalmed reverence. Above all, there is a hush, a solemnity to the proceedings. A preconcert admonition to refrain from coughing reminds us we are leaving the physical realm behind.
On Tuesday evening at Strathmore, Schiff graced the faithful with an all-Schubert program, presented by Washington Performing Arts. Seated at his preferred Bösendorfer concert grand, Schiff seemed not so much directly channeling the spirit of Schubert as delivering a sermon based on sacred texts.
In his readings, Schiff ensured that no musical thought went without comment and that no expressive point was missed by the audience. The pianist’s impressive technique — his rounded tone, limpid clarity and astonishing control over color and articulation — was all in service to a kind of musical pedantry. Even in moments of great beauty — and there were many breathtaking passages — one seldom forgot that one was beholding an exquisitely wrought artifact, like a medieval altarpiece.
The opening work, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 845, demonstrated the best and worst of Schiff. The second movement, a glorious set of theme and variations, was a master class in light and shade, full of subtle inflections and delightful filigree. Yet in the Scherzo, Schiff’s didactic differentiation of textures verged on mannerism, while his stiff phrasing grew tedious.
Likewise, in the third of Schubert’s Klavierstücke, D. 946, Schiff’s careful delineation of the cross rhythms sounded stilted and overly precious. More convincing were the set of Impromptus, D. 935, especially No. 1, where Schiff beautifully sustained tension and dramatic sweep, even while maintaining the sparkling clarity of his passagework.
The recital concluded with a reading of the Piano Sonata in G, D. 894, that was curiously devoid of poetry or mystery. Aside from the disarming simplicity of the third movement’s Ländler, Schiff’s playing sounded excessively manicured and oddly denatured, with every nuance and every turn of phrase sounding preordained. Here endeth the lesson.