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Archive for November, 2015

András Schiff

The 1876 Steinway

The 1876 Steinway

András Schiff believes that life is too short to play anything other than masterpieces. Someone had asked him why he chooses such imposing programs. For example, in the last ten years, I have heard him play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the entire second book of Preludes and Fugues (in one concert), and all six Partitas (in one concert). In London, he recently played both the Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, both lasting an hour or so (in one concert). These are feats of endurance as much for the audience as for the player, but he has disdain for those pianists who have a more frivolous approach to programming; in other words, nearly all his colleagues. Even the greatest composers were prepared to let their hair down every now and then. Beethoven, after all, composed the Rage Over a Lost Penny as well as the Diabelli Variations, but I don’t expect to hear Schiff play the former any time soon.

At least his current series has more than one composer in each concert, although it shares his obsession with completist programming. It is quite common to schedule the three final sonatas of Beethoven or Schubert in the same concert, but Schiff is playing the final three sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, programming one by each composer over three concerts. On Sunday, in the second program of the series, he played their penultimate sonatas. He started with a speech, explaining why there were two pianos on stage. The first was one of Symphony Center’s conventional black Steinway Model Ds, but the second was an 1876 Steinway, restored by Obi Manteufel in Seattle. Schiff made the self-evident point that no one piano is ideal for every piece, and argued that the 1876 model provided a bridge into the sound of the fortepianos that Mozart would have known, without being inaudible in a large hall. He challenged us to disagree with him that sound world of the older piano brought new insights into these masterpieces.

I am ready to meet that challenge. The sound of the Manteufel was considerably thinner than the modern Steinway, and I found the treble to be rather shrill, particularly when Schiff over-projected the melodic lines of the opening Mozart sonata, giving the music a hectoring strident quality. It is true that the pianistic textures were more transparent, although that is as much due to Schiff’s style of playing as to the piano itself. He has always been adept at bringing out inner melodic lines; sometimes, the effect is revelatory and even magical, but at other times, it can seem purely didactic. The boundary between the two can be very thin, and Schiff crossed from one side to the other many times throughout the concert.

Two of the pieces he played have a strong association for me with Alfred Brendel. I was introduced to him  as a teenager during a series of masterclasses he gave in London, by a mutual friend, who told him I was learning Beethoven’s Sonata in A Flat, op. 110. His only response was to express concern that I would probably have to change my fingering as I grew older. He was, of course, correct, but I will get it right eventually. Among several felicities, Schiff had a very graceful take on the second movement, which normally sounds truculent and bad-tempered, but I was unmoved by the arioso lamentations of the complex final movement, which seemed mannered rather than tragic. There is a danger of turning the gently sobbing phrases into mawkish melodrama, but in this performance, the final arioso section was curiously withdrawn, its etiolated tone an insufficient substitute for genuine feeling. Of course, Schiff had no problem with the counterpoint, and I thought he was effective in conveying the collapse of energy after the effortful first fugue, and the spiritual ecstasy of the second.

The second piece, Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D959, is one I first heard in Brendel’s masterclass, one of the supreme moments of musical revelation in my life. I don’t believe that any other pianist has understood as well as Brendel the way Schubert’s music has to ebb and flow in order to express its full humanity, allowing the emotion to breathe through the structure rather than be confined by it. In Brendel’s performances, particularly in the slow movement, the music would sometimes hang on a single expectant chord, signaling a moment of inward transformation. I have never understood why he is thought of as cerebral when he was capable of such intense empathy. Fortunately, his students, such as Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis, have absorbed those lessons and continue the tradition. Schiff probably finds Brendel’s approach self-indulgent. In similar passages, he maintained a consistent pulse, gliding over such emotional transitions without a pause. There were things to admire in the performance. I was disappointed that he chose to play the sonata on the Manteufel, but it came into its own in the first movement development section, where, by applying a lot of pedal, Schiff made the piano sound like a tinkly musical box, capturing well the music’s child-like excitement and following it with surprisingly intense drama. He was also very effective in the scherzo, which I have never heard played with such elegance and lightness of touch. But his didactic tendencies recurred in the finale, destroying some of Schubert’s most exquisite harmonies by over-playing hidden musical lines that I’m sure Schubert never intended to be heard. Not all music is counterpoint.

Schiff refuses to play in his native Hungary, while the current authoritarian regime is in power, but he is instead embedded in London’s musical establishment, with a knighthood from the Queen as the ultimate affirmation of his status.  He is a wonderful pianist, who, at his best, is able to make music dance with effortless poise and wit, as his Bach encore demonstrated. However, I am concerned that he is becoming increasingly ascetic as he grows older, perhaps equating austerity with profundity. When he played the Bach Partitas recently, I was quite shocked at how plain the slow movements were, devoid of the affection he displayed in his youth. While his interpretations are always highly original, I often feel he is delivering a lecture on the music rather than living through it. And I hope he doesn’t bring the Manteufel with him next time as a teaching aid.

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