Archive for October, 2010

András Schiff

Andras Schiff

Schumann is the most intimate of composers. Whereas I think of Chopin as reciting poetry in a salon, I picture Schumann as sharing a cup of coffee (or glass of red wine) in the kitchen quietly confessing his latest infatuation (while Liszt is away on some mountain top as painted by Caspar David Friedrich). He is the truest of the romantics and the greatest Schumann pianists have to be intensely communicative, holding nothing back, sharing their closest secrets with you.

András Schiff, who performed an all-Schumann recital in Chicago’s Symphony Centre on Sunday, seems a little too impeccably groomed for such a role. Dressed in a three-piece suit (with a watch chain, perhaps to time the applause?), walking rather stiffly, and bowing with his hands clasped tightly together, he looks more like an obsequious bank manager than an ardent romantic. He plays with his arms outstretched, leaning back as if he finds the keyboard slightly distasteful, and conveying absolutely no sense of effort. He could be idly rearranging his stamp collection on a Sunday afternoon, rather than playing some of the most impetuous music in the piano literature.

What of the playing itself? To some extent, his aloof manner is reflected in the performance. He is fastidious to a fault. Every detail is carefully polished and immaculately layered to make even the densest of musical textures appear transparent. This clarity of texture allows the main themes to glow and his playing can truly sing. The absence of any sense of strain in even the fastest passages has the effect of turning such music into dance. He evidently enjoys tossing off passages with verve and grace that in other hands would have sounded like strenuous pounding. I have never heard the finale of the Symphonic Etudes played with such rhythmic élan, and many of the faster Davidsbündlertänze numbers were just as infectious.

On the other hand, for much of the first half, he refused to play with any real tenderness. He played lyrically and produced the most delicate of pianissimos, but there was no inner warmth, no sense of shared emotion. That is, until he played the final two sections of the Davidsbündlertänze, where he conveyed a rapt stillness that was truly magical. It is impossible to quantify what suddenly changed – it might have been me, not him – but the last piece, with his left hand tolling the final bells of the first half, was genuinely moving. He communicated the same sense of intimacy and engagement in the Kinderszenen after the interval, and especially in his encore, the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy, played with an extraordinary hushed intensity. He played an alternative version which ends with a quote from the Fantasy’s first movement, itself a quote from Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte. Perhaps he wanted to finally convince us that this bank manager knows what it is to be in love.

I first read about Andras Schiff in a newspaper article (either in the Guardian or Observer) written in the early seventies about a remarkable flowering of pianistic talent in Hungary. The article now appears quite  prescient since the other pianists mentioned were Deszo Ranki and Zoltan Kocsis, both of whom have had distinguished careers. Shortly afterwards, Schiff reached the finals of the Leeds Piano Competition, where he showed an aristocratic disdain for convention by playing a Bach concerto, rather than the Prokofiev or Rachmaninov you were meant to play if you actually wanted to win. Of course, he didn’t win. He came third. The winner, Dmitri Alexeev, who played Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto, understood the rules of the game, but in following them, he became the first in a long line of Leeds winners who ended up less famous than those they beat (Mitsuko Uchida came second that year). Now, Schiff is in advanced middle age, perhaps one of the top five or so pianists of his generation. Since he played a significant role in reclaiming Bach for the modern piano, rescuing it from the more mannered specialists like Rosalyn Tureck, and still plays in a highly distinctive, if sometimes over-refined, style, I think he has earned the right to play by his own rules now.


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This blog is for pianophiles. There will be no profound reflections on modern society, movie recommendations, sports predictions, or gossip. I have no claim to say anything particularly interesting on any of those topics.  I have, however, been to numerous piano recitals over nearly 40 years, mostly in London, more recently in Chicago. Just to do a little name-dropping, I heard many great pianists towards the end of their careers; Wilhelm Kempff, Claudio Arrau, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Clifford Curzon, Jorge Bolet. I never heard Artur Rubinstein play, although I brushed past him once in the foyer of the Wigmore Hall. I also heard the London debuts of Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, Mitsuko Uchida, Krystian Zimerman, Ollie Mustonen, as well as recitals and concert series by already established pianists, such as Maurizio Pollini, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lazar Berman, Stephen Bishop(-Kovacevich), and Alfred Brendel. And many others since. Of course, that doesn’t mean I have any special insights into what made their playing special; that will be for others to judge. I am writing mostly for myself (just as well, I hear you say, given my potential readership) to preserve my memories of events that were significant to me but in danger of fading. Actually, I have much more vivid recollections of some recitals that I heard over thirty years ago than those I heard last year, so I will also be trying to post thoughts on recitals just after I’ve heard them. Coming up, Andras Schiff.

Why the title? It comes from Alfred Brendel’s memorable phrase about Schubert. On more than one occasion, Schubert copied the structure of one of Beethoven’s movements, like an art student copying a Cezanne still life. But, whereas Beethoven’s music is driven by the imperatives of harmonic tension, Schubert seems to be sleep-walking, drifting from one idea to the next, guided by subconscious instinct rather than inexorable logic. I’m afraid that is how I play the piano – I feel that I have a better than average sense of classical style (for an amateur), but my playing is instinctive rather than intellectually rigorous. On the other hand, those pianists that I admire the most combine their instinct with deep intelligence to lift us out of a contingent, messy world, if only for a moment, and make us aware of the sublime. This blog is in gratitude for all those moments.

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