Piano Recital: Sir András Schiff
Bach / Beethoven / Bartók / Janáček / Schubert
Church St.Johann, Schaffhausen, 2017-09-19
Less than a year ago, I had the opportunity to witness Sir András Schiff in an orchestral concert, where he played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5. Now, there was a chance to hear him in a solo recital, in the context of the “Schaffhauser Meisterkonzerte“, in the church St.Johann in Schaffhausen, at the Rhine. For this concert, a podium was erected at the back wall of the big church. The big organ prospect dominates the back wall of the church. The nave is gothic in its structure, but decorations in other styles now prevail. The organ is neo-Gothic. The benches in the church had been inverted to face the podium. The concert was very well-attended, but not sold out.
The stage featured Schiff’s favorite concert grand, a Bösendorfer 280VC, the instrument he already played in the Beethoven concerto last year.
Sir András Schiff is known as a very careful, diligent artist. Whoever has witnessed the artist in a masterclass (as can be followed on YouTube) can testify how much he values extreme subtleties in articulation and dynamics, down to the relative weight of every finger in chords, or of every figure in a complex piano score: he is a true master in dynamic differentiation, of careful playing.
The other aspect which I should mention is that he would be the very last artist to play an inconsiderate or unreflected phrase: his lecture series on the Beethoven piano sonatas (e.g., the one he gave 2004 – 2006 at Wigmore Hall in London) give a vivid testimony, of how thoughtfully, how reflected (rather than spontaneously) he approaches piano music.
I was hoping that this concert would give me a chance to witness these aspects of his playing directly, and with my own ears. Schiff’s program covered the wide time span between Bach and the 20th century composers Béla Bartók and Leoš Janáček:
Schiff opened the program with the a Capriccio by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): the “Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo“, BWV 992, i.e., a Capriccio (i.e., a little musical joke, or an ironic piece), written on the occasion of “the departure of his dearly beloved brother”—allegedly for his brother Johann Jacob who left to become an oboist in the army of Charles XII in Sweden. the Capriccio features 6 movements, all with descriptive titles / annotations:
- Arioso: Adagio — (In which his friends prevail upon him, to give up his proposed journey)
- (Andante) — (In which various hardships, which might befall him so far from home, are presented)
- Adagissimo — (Being a general lament on the part of his friends)
- (Andante con moto) — (In which his friends approach, seeing that they cannot sway the course of destiny, and take their leave)
- Allegro poco, “Aria di Postiglione” — (Aria of the Postilion)
- Fuga all’imitazione della cornetta di postiglione — (Fugue in Imitation of the Postilion’s Horn)
Certainly in my mind, this music is clearly written for the harpsichord. So, it would be interesting to see how much of the harpsichord’s musical language Schiff would be able to transfer / convey to big Bösendorfer concert grand!
I. Arioso: Adagio
On a harpsichord, this is typically played very expressively, slowly, with lots of “local language” (Klangrede)—something that can hardly be achieved on a piano. So, pianists—as also András Schiff here—play this at a much more fluent pace, focusing on the melody line, with moderate use of dynamics. This led to two problems: for one, the Adagio character was largely lost, the piece rather felt like an Andante. Then, Bach’s rich, explicitly notated ornamentation becomes somewhat of a challenge. At this tempo, Schiff occasionally needed to simplify Bach’s ornaments. And despite that, the music sometimes felt overfilled with arabesques.
Schiff’s ornaments were actually very adequate, and in proper baroque “language”: one could certainly feel that baroque music is close to his heart, he has carefully studied baroque syntax. However, for reasons of acoustics in large venues, he thinks he cannot abandon using a modern concert grand.
Compared to a performance on Bach’s instruments, this movement featured again a relatively fluent, flowing tempo, and a much denser texture, more of a “full sound”, presenting less of the narration that the title suggests.
The annotation indicates “as slowly / calm as possible”. However, as in the first movement, the interpretation here did not really feel that way. It was too fast for my taste, and lacking “Klangrede”—even though Schiff used very adequate, esthetic, appropriate language in motifs and phrases.
IV. (Andante con moto)
Also here: too fast for the narrative indicated by the annotation: even though Bach probably was taking this ironically (or actually, because Bach meant this to be ironic!), a little exaggeration in expressiveness, an over-emphatic good-bye would feel much more adequate!
V. Allegro poco, “Aria di Postiglione“
Here, I liked the tempo, and Schiff’s ornaments were both properly baroque, as well as adapted to the articulative means of a concert grand. However, the repeats were rather overloaded with ornaments.
VI. Fuga all’imitazione della cornetta di postiglione
It is true that articulation as used on a harpsichord can barely be effective on a concert grand. Yet, the closing fugue in my opinion deserved a more detailed articulation, rather than the persistent staccato (or portato) in the main theme (Schiff did use more detailed articulation in the comes, though). Bach limits the annotation to the absolute minimum—but I doubt that one should take this literally.
Overall, I found the interpretation to be a bit “thin” in expression, lacking Klangrede, with too much focus on esthetic, joyful, pleasant playing. To me, it did not convey the narrative from Bach’s titles, whether these were meant seriously of ironically. Annotations such as Adagissimo to me indicate irony. I did definitely not feel this in Schiff’s interpretation.
The Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) was discussed in detail in an earlier post in this blog, where I compared several recordings of this sonata. So, here I just list the movements:
- Das Lebewohl / Les adieux (the farewell): Adagio — Allegro
- Abwesenheit / L’absence (the absence): Andante espressivo (In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck)
- Das Wiedersehen / Le retour (the return): Vivacissimamente (Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße)
From the narrative, the first movement certainly seems an excellent fit to Bach’s Capriccio. However, Beethoven’s farewell is barely ironic: it was meant to be a true farewell to his patron, Archduke Rudolph, who was leaving the Vienna because of the French troops approaching. The second movement equally seriously deplored the absence of his friend. And Beethoven composed the over-joyful last movement only when the Archduke returned.
Schiff did indeed connect the two pieces: he did not look up from the keyboard, but rather continued with Beethoven’s sonata after a few seconds. However, the connection from Bach’s rather harmless (and ironic) “postillion” fugue to Beethoven’s “farewell” opening did not really feel conclusive. Maybe Schiff merely wanted to avoid applause interrupting the performance?
I. Adagio — Allegro
Schiff’s Beethoven seemed exemplary for the entire evening: it was technically flawless (apart from a brief, but noticeable memory lapse at the beginning of the Allegro part in this movement), and it featured extreme care in the dynamic forming of the phrases (arches). Schiff’s touch is perfect, rather on the soft side, never ever aggressive, avoiding all harshness. Schiff focused on the melodies, on the singing tone, the flow, the perfect sound and balance. Too careful? Too much legato?
II. Andante espressivo
This was the movement I liked the most in this performance. To some, it may have seemed too “fast”, too fluent for an Andante espressivo (faster than with many other pianists, for sure). But Schiff correctly read the movement in 2/4 time, i.e., with two beats per bar.
Schiff built his performance on the solid foundation of the warm, full sonority of the Bösendorfer grand, its singing tone in the descant (and the instrument was in excellent shape, both in intonation, as well as in tuning!). Sadly, he largely appeared to sacrifice any “talking” articulation at the level of motifs, The reverberating acoustics of the large church certainly did not help revealing details in the articulation. I missed Beethoven’s impulsive, even eruptive temperament, particularly in this last movement: where was Beethoven’s overflowing joy and happiness? This was too much elegance and flow overall, despite momentary impulsiveness in the syncopes (e.g., from bar 79 on).
A last quibble: there were subtle tempo shifts near bar 45 and equivalent passages in the Vivacissimamente, which did not feel quite conclusive.
Bartók: Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88
Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) composed his only piano sonata (Sz.80 / BB 88) in June 1926. I checked my records, and to my amazement I realized that this is the sixth time over the past 2 years that I listened to this piece in concert—more than any other composition! So, I’ll refrain from giving more of a description here, other than again listing the movements:
- Allegro moderato
- Sostenuto e pesante
- Allegro molto
Schiff followed the same pattern again, just pausing briefly, transitioning from Beethoven to Bartók before applause could disrupt the performance.
I. Allegro moderato
Also in other aspects, this performance followed the pattern of the preceding pieces: from all of the previous performances, as well as from recordings that I looked up, I know this sonata as typical Bartók, motoric, strongly rhythmic piece. Especially young pianists seem to take this as a showpiece, offering virtuosic performances in the outer movements, often played with grim determination and perseverance. This first movement features almost permanent quaver motorics, with flashes of brief semiquaver interjections.
Clearly, Schiff doesn’t feel an urging need to show off virtuosity and acrobatics: artistic abilities are implied, self-evident, the basis for his performing. That said: he performed clearly below Bartók’s metronome annotation. It felt like a permanently controlled, tamed dance rhythm, with a relatively soft keyboard touch (as if he wanted to save the piano from damage). Even the transition to the Più mosso felt hesitant, restrained.
II. Sostenuto e pesante
But as with the Beethoven sonata, I liked the slow movement the most. This really was a Sostenuto e pesante, as requested by the composer. Even though sostenuto, Schiff exploited a wide spectrum of what the Bösendorfer grand could offer in dynamics and sonority.
III. Allegro molto
Those who (as myself) were expecting the usual fireworks that (primarily young) pianists typically present in the last movement, were disappointed again. Yes, there were occasional sparks from the virtuosic, octavated interjections, but occasionally, the music to me almost felt like a French impressionist composition (Ravel? Debussy?). The rather soft sonority of the instrument may have contributed to this (and the reverberation probably didn’t help either).
Janáček: Piano Sonata “1 X 1905”
Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) wrote his Piano Sonata “1 X 1905” in memory of a workman who got killed during manifestations for the Czech University in Brno. It consists of only two movements (5 and 7-8 minutes). The movement titles give the “program” for the sonata:
- Foreboding (Předtucha) – Con moto
- Death (Smrt) – Adagio
For this second half of the concert, Schiff had further lowered his already low seating position (though not quite to the extreme that Stephen Kovacevich would be using!), bringing him even closer to the keyboard. To me, the Janáček sonata turned into the true highlight of the evening:
I. Foreboding – Con moto
I found it excellent how Schiff was able to capture the mood, the atmosphere in this music. He used of the excellent sonority of the Bösendorfer grand to the advantage of Janáček very touching piece. He shaped harmonious dramatic arches, made the flow and the dynamics culminate at climaxes: the artist appeared to liven up in this composition—despite the rather depressing—and yet touching, urging, moving—emotional content.
II. Death – Adagio
This continued in the second movement, which builds up to dramatic moments, up to an expressive ff. After the first climax, Janáček’s texture is so densely and full of tension that as a listener, one can barely follow the melody, which hides in the middle voice (this is not the pianist’s fault, but a consequence of the composer’s disposition). The only quibble here: in the soft parts, Schiff’s arpeggiando playing was a tad too obvious, too regular and persistent. But the entire composition left me deeply touched, moved.
Schubert: Piano Sonata No.19 in C minor, D.958
The Piano Sonata No.19 in C minor, D.958, is the first of the three sonatas which Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote in the last year of his short life, at a time when he long knew that he would not have to live much longer. All three sonatas are expressions of the composer’s desperate, desolate mood, and when slow movements appear serene, that’s an expression of Schubert’s last hope, or maybe his clinging onto a brighter world beyond. The C minor sonata has four movements:
- Allegro (3/4)
- Adagio (3/4)
- Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Menuetto da capo
- Allegro (6/8)
And again, Schiff continued after a few seconds of a reflective pause (very appropriate after the Janáček sonata!), but before applause was setting in. Sadly, this last work in the official program was again somewhat of a disappointment:
I don’t know how much of this one can attribute to the acoustics, the atmosphere of the venue: rather than despair, rebelling, fighting, the ruptures in Schubert’s music, I felt resignation, even (sometimes) pure sound esthetics, if not Apollonian transfiguration. It seemed too soigné, overall, too moderated (often, it felt f rather than ff). Did Schiff not dare to be more expressive, more direct and explicit? Is it enough to “let the music work for itself”? And again, there were instances of Schiff’s overly regular and predictable arpeggiando playing. If there was a highlight, then it was in the warm, full sonority of the bass line in the center of the evolution segment.
The beginning: is this a pure idyll? I seemed too gentle, ignored what I see as clear signs of an underlying threat, of despair, even in the first part in A♭ major. And the arpeggiando … Yes, there are moments of longing, maybe memories of a serene past, and these were nice, beautifully played—but I think this music also should express forlornness, loneliness, (extreme) longing, even despair in some ways. My remarks may sound extreme, and I’m sure that Schiff sees all these aspects, too. However, I don’t think he was able to convey this to the audience.
III. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio
The Menuetto appeared slick, fluent. Here, there are some prominent examples of those sudden general rests of a full bar, where the composer appears to hold his breath, maybe even looking down into an abyss that is suddenly opening. It wasn’t just Schiff’s playing which attenuated the effect of these pauses, but also the reverberation in the venue. The Trio may indeed be seen as more gentle, friendlier. I liked Schiff’s playing in this part. Here, it really seemed perfectly adequate.
With the acoustics, the reverberation of the venue, possibly also a somewhat mellow articulation, that movement sounded too perfect, too smooth, lost most of its unruliness (e.g., in those ascending scales in the right hand, accompanied with rapidly repeated chords in the left). I would have preferred the artist to take an “emotionally more risky path”. But again: the acoustics of the venue did not help the interpretation of this big, desperate movement.
For the two encores, András Schiff returned to Johann Sebastian Bach:
The first encore: Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 846, from volume I of the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC I). Under other circumstances, I would have considered this far too much of a contrast, a bad fit for the emotional turmoil in the Schubert sonata. Here, however, with the acoustics moderating the contrast (and the character of the music), it wasn’t that much of an extreme change, even though I still didn’t think it was the best choice.
Fortunately, Schiff ended the evening with another little highlight: the pair of Gavottes from the English Suite No.6 in D minor, BWV 811, in a serene, almost playful interpretation—wonderful music, for sure, and a reconciliatory ending to this recital.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.