The sold-out Jordan Hall seemed to pulse with anticipation for Sir András Schiff’s return to the Celebrity Series after two-and-a-half-year interval. More than a few came to hear not just a star of the international circuit, but also a charming narrator whose Beethoven sonata lectures from Wigmore Hall [link here] have developed a global reach. There would be of course no commentary during the recital, but the audience knew exactly what interpretative style they would be getting.
Themed on the last sonatas of the great classics, the tour premise results in a challenge of putting either Beethoven or Schubert’s last masterpiece into the before-the-intermission slot. But before there was time to worry about such things, a vintage Schiff take on Haydn’s Hob.XVI:52 put minds at ease with minimal pedaling, crystal clear articulation, and impeccable phrasing. Subtle rubato in the first movement helped accentuate the voices.
Folks in the audience were smiling as if appreciating a witty repartee. Before the first movement was over I started noticing deep and effortless lower range and realized that the other visiting star of the evening was the Bösendorfer 280VC.
In one way or another, Opus 111 rewarded from the beginning to the end. Clarity from top to bottom further advanced whatever understanding we had gained from maestro’s lectures about the work’s construction. In places the didactic might have gained upper hand over the musical: the jagged ascent in bars 66-67 came with exaggerated articulation—the sforzandi seemed to cross from dynamic into duration changes and left a disturbing stumbling impression. But ample pleasure came in hearing the overall excitement of the Maestoso and Allegro with fine delineation of harmonies and transparency of textures. The Bösendorfer helped; its lower register always articulated and never turned into primordial tremors. The Arietta ran straightforward and logically—certainly exciting in its own way. The initial build-up culminated in the exhilaration of the ‘jazzy variation’, but that was the high point of the excitement. Beautifully played ascent to heaven felt less like rapture, than like enjoying the company of a few very friendly angels. This opus 111 perhaps failed to leave us breathless, but neither would I have wanted to miss it. In his 2013 Boston recital, Schiff had chosen to play Arietta as an encore and got the audience very excited. I wonder how different it was that time and how much the apogee placement influenced the perception.
After the intermission, elegant and refined account of Mozart’s Sonata in D-Major inevitably felt like a start of a new concert. Mozart wrote this charming, presumed gift to the Princess Friederike at the time when he was seeing a whole new world of opportunities at the Prussian Court. It was full of exploration and probing, rather than premonition, and provided a perfect contrast to what followed.
The sonate de resistance was Schubert’s monumental B-flat major. I don’t think I ever heard this sonata with such transparent textures and pure bass tone; the glorious low register of the Bösendorfer was given another chance to display its distinctiveness. And on this visit, Schiff, who has recently published a new recording of the sonata, pulled off something amazing, while avoiding exaggerated tempi and reliance on on over-dramatized fermatas.
When Richter had introduced his interpretation of late Schubert with his trance-inducing first movements, it might have been a very conscious reaction against light-weight or morose Schubert run-throughs (I always found, for example, Kempff Schubert recordings shallow rather than charming in their naiveté). At the same time, while the new approach had emerged out of deep respect for human suffering as typified in Winterreise, it had shown a bit less respect for the composer’s idiom. Schiff was closer to Schubert’s markings, but there was nothing light-weight about the performance. The first theme of the first movement sounded with tremendous urgency The movements followed each other with barely a pause and carried the breathing continuous line throughout. And while the Andante proceeded without stumbling or dragging feet, its glockenspiel-like sonorities reminded of the highly relevant Zügenglöcklein song. The Scherzo was played not only con delicatezza, but also with wistfulness and nostalgia, as if through a veil. It brought no sharp contrast or relief, and came out with breathtaking beauty.
Schiff delivered his first encore, the slow movement of D.959, with the same elegance and gorgeous uninterrupted line. Mozart’s charming Adagio for Glass Harmonica (K.617) served as a lighthearted goodbye.
I narrowly missed Andras Schiff’s performances in the mild summer days of 1974, when my mom and I would start our day with a quick hop on the Metro to the Moscow Conservatory to listen to dozens of competitors in the first and second round of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Competition. That one was won by the brilliant and remarkably gifted Andrei Gavrilov, but the atmosphere of the competition was always rather full of suspicions: was he really that good, rumor mill questioned by the time of the final round, or was it a decision from the top. Gavrilov of that period, according to his own later reflections on the zeitgeist, used to impress the audience with raw emotions, by nearly shaking in convulsions on his piano bench, as if possessed by a devil. Schiff with his elegant playing of Mozart, looked like an alien in that crowd, as some eyewitnesses vividly recall. I bet his style has not changed a whit since those days.