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Schiff, Second-to-Last Sonatas

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Sonatas, A. Schiff
(ECM, 2015)

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Final Piano Sonatas, A. Schiff
(ECM, 2008)
András Schiff has decided to have a look at the phenomenon of autumnal last works, by playing recitals devoted to the last three piano sonatas of four composers from the Classical period. The first of these concerts in Washington, presented by Washington Performing Arts on Sunday afternoon at Strathmore, inaugurated a series of three, planned over two years. Some music historians and listeners hear a difference in some composers' final three sonatas, especially those of Schubert. Not surprisingly, this program focused on that composer, who wrote his final three piano sonatas in the shadow of the death he knew was waiting for him, by ending with his antepenultimate sonata. (This follows on his last two recitals here, which focused on Bach and Schumann.) While Beethoven's last three sonatas have also played into this idea of a composer's "late style," part of Schiff's programming seemed to show that these groupings of last sonatas are perhaps as arbitrary as any other.

Haydn's C major sonata (no. 60, Hob. XVI:50) sounded much like other Haydn sonatas, and in Schiff's hands that was charming, idiosyncratic, and slightly self-indulgent. The laconic opening theme, played comically with a single finger, received Schiff's typically clipped staccato attack, and the tempo, although plenty fast, bubbled more than rushed. Throughout this piece and its light companion in the same key, Mozart's no. 16 (K. 545, the one that you certainly know), Schiff used the repeats to add fun embellishments. Formal delights, like the false recapitulation, deep in the bass register, in the middle of the Haydn first movement, were pointed out wryly rather than obtrusively -- as in the third movement, where the rondo subject takes these funny wrong turns, getting hung up on surprise harmonic areas. The second movement had the feel of an opera aria, very free rhythmically and with an ultra-delicate touch, even in the octave passages. The Mozart felt equally blithe, late sonata or no, with a development section so short that one could almost describe the piece as a sonatina. Both of these works, which had much in common, made nice openers for the more substantial sonatas that followed them.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pianist András Schiff is note-perfect at Strathmore concert (Washington Post, March 17)

Anthony Tommasini, Andras Schiff Turns Mischievous at Carnegie Hall (New York Times, March 13)

Jay Nordlinger, A knight in recital (The New Criterion, March 11)

David Gordon Duke, Classical review: Andras Schiff excels with Last Sonatas (Vancouver Sun, March 2)

Mark Swed, András Schiff slyly and expertly plays late sonatas of legends (Los Angeles Times, February 19)

Joshua Kosman, András Schiff review: Pianist’s magnificent sonata display (San Francisco Chronicle, February 16)
As music scholar Charles Rosen has observed, Beethoven intended his three final sonatas (op. 109-111) as "exemplars of great spiritual experience," and op. 109 (E major, composed from 1820 to 1821) remains my favorite of them, because it reveals Beethoven’s adventurous tinkering with sonata form. William Kinderman describes the composer’s “intense interest at this time with parenthetical structures that enclose musical passages within contrasting sections,” and this hiding of themes within other thematic sections, a game of unexpected detours, runs throughout the piece. Schiff's approach, again with plenty of rhythmic freedom, seemed to show a connection forward to the rhapsodies and paraphrases of Liszt, and an attacca transition to the second movement, forceful but not as fast as it could be, blurred the boundaries somewhat. In the theme of the third movement, and in the plainer variations, Schiff's interpretation foundered a bit, in terms of interest, but the more eccentric ones were quite diverting.

Schubert's C minor sonata (no. 19, D. 958) did not play to the same strengths, as Schiff is not really a forza kind of player, reveling most in the first movement's eccentric development section, the whole thing pretty but a little snoozy. This was matched by a gloomy but rather delicate second movement and a Menuetto, with its stops and starts and murky trio, that was on the precious side. Finally, in the fourth movement, the piece came to life in Schiff's hands, the pervasive dotted rhythms devilish and the intricate hand-crossings handled beautifully. For encores, Schiff stuck with Schubert, giving polished renditions of the Ungarische Melodie in B minor, D. 817, and the Impromptu No. 2 in E-flat major, D. 899. (There was a third, I am told: a Beethoven Bagatelle, op. 126, no. 4.)


datrappert said...

If you missed the first encore, I wonder if you were even there! Schiff should stick to Bach. While his Haydn wasn't bad, the Mozart lacked all the life that even a 10-year old performer can give to it. There was no joy at all in the wonderful first movement. It just sounded as if he was saving his strength for the Schubert. As for the Beethoven, which is one of the great sonatas, his interpretation was just awful. He never got the right tempo. He played the first variation slower than the theme in the third movement. But at least it was better than the Mozart. The encores were the highlight of the performance.

Charles T. Downey said...

If you did not understand that I did not hear the third encore, not the first, I wonder if you even read my review.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.