The Hungarian pianist András Schiff has become, like Alfred Brendel and Richard Goode before him, something of a hierophant of the central Austro-German canon. Now in his early 60s, his stature is such that he can focus almost exclusively on the masterpieces of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert without bothering with lesser or more esoteric repertoire. His many recordings (he has done the “Well-Tempered Clavier” twice) are widely acknowledged as touchstones, and Sunday he delivered late sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to a rapt house at Strathmore. The playing was note-perfect and affectionate, though a little self-indulgent at times.
The recital, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was the first of three (the remainder to be given next season) surveying the final sonatas of the four composers. Despite a plethora of ideas in the earlier sonatas, it was clear that the concert’s closing work, Schubert’s C Minor Sonata (D. 958), was Schiff’s focal point and destination.
Schiff’s sensitivity for harmonic and emotional color was given full play here; he poured feeling into every phrase, sometimes endangering the boundaries of cohesion and form. In the first movement, the undulating chromatic scale that winds its way from the development section into the recap was like a serpent from hell, and the coda invoked Verdi at his darkest. The thunderstorms in the middle of the adagio gave way to a parting of the clouds with glimpses of the cosmos. All of this was achieved without any showmanship, simply manipulation of voicing, timing and (minimal) pedaling; it was true “musicmaking.”
Again, the liberties Schiff can take with tempos and within a phrase are not to every taste and can start to pull a piece apart. In his view, the farther a key is from the tonic, the slower he gets to play it. In the Schubert finale — a tarantella of fear — one of the contrasting episodes is in C-sharp minor, close in pitch but worlds away, harmonically, from the tonic of C minor. Anyone listening closely to this performance would assume the composer had written “meno mosso” (slower) here — but he didn’t. There are any number of justifications, extra-musical and musical, for such departures, but other great artists have painted as vast a canvas and achieved the same emotional force while still holding the movement together as a unit.
In the Haydn (No. 60) and more so in the Mozart (K. 545) sonatas, Schiff delighted with clever and tasteful ornaments in repeated sections; few other artists dare to do this today. Tempos were a little constricted (fast movements rather measured, slow movements quite flowing), and the same tic with remote keys intruded. In the operatic adagio from the Haydn, Schiff waited so long to start the development section, I worried that he’d had a memory slip; certainly the pulse of the music was completely lost.
But I have only unreserved praise for his Beethoven Op. 109 sonata. Schiff is a master at building and shaping climaxes, never running out of sound too soon. The rich, ecstatic sonorities of the final variation, the propulsion (without rushing) of the scherzo, and the structural control (tempo waywardness notwithstanding) of the first movement all revealed a deep ontology as the artist reached ever upward toward what lay beyond the notes. This recital will remain in memory for a long time.
The first two encores were Schubert’s Hungarian melody (D.817) and Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 2), then a Beethoven Bagatelle (Op. 126, No. 4).
Battey is a freelance writer.