Alexander Schimpf is a thoughtful, intense player. At his Phillips Collection recital Sunday, the pianist hewed to the central canon from his native Germany — Beethoven and Brahms (and a Bach encore) — with only a brief excursion to Russia (Scriabin’s Sonata No. 7). The musical ideas came fast and thick, at times in a jumble.
Schimpf, in his mid-30s, has an active international career, including performances with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and with Christian Tetzlaff. He is focused and businesslike, and he produces uncluttered sounds within a wide dynamic range. However, his musical rhetoric is often hard to follow; phrases didn’t flow naturally from one to the next, and the voice-leading was strange at times.
For me, the clue was that he stares almost obsessively at his hands, the head darting left and right; the danger is that the finger action becomes the focus rather than the music itself. When you hear a Rubinstein, Gould or Argerich, the piano seems to disappear, and one sees the music unfurling as the composer wrote it. Also, relying so heavily on vision for execution conveys insecurity, and the missed notes in Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, including the very first bar, all seemed to stem from this.
(For those who might object that I’m just looking for things to carp about and that pianists must rely on their eyes sometimes, especially to handle large leaps, I have two words: Nobuyuki Tsujii.)
The Scriabin was the most successful performance of the afternoon, the fevered, almost improvisatory music matching the artist’s fitful imagination and wayward playing. But in the Brahms Klavierstücke Op. 76, the musical lines were often broken, both through excessive rubato and, again, odd voicings. Schimpf is a talented and interesting artist; he concealed a memory slip in the finale of the Beethoven with calm skill, and some of his ideas were bracing and ear-tickling. More practice and experience may bring everything into better balance someday.