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26.2.16

Schiff's Last Sonatas

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Sonata D. 960 (inter alia), A. Schiff (fortepiano)
(ECM, 2015)

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Sonatas, A. Schiff (piano)
(Decca, 2011)
There is something special about music composed at the end of a composer's life, whether he or she is aware of the approach of death or not. András Schiff has attempted to explore that autumnal quality, in a journey of three concerts begun last year, devoted to the last three piano sonatas of the four great Viennese composers, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. While I was forced to miss the second of these concerts, the final installment was presented by Washington Performing Arts on Wednesday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, and cyclonic winds and flooding could not keep me away.

Each half of the program paired a less substantial last sonata (Haydn and Mozart) with two incomparable masterworks of the genre, Beethoven's op. 111 and Schubert's D. 960. Schiff's sometimes fussy manipulation of touch at the keyboard was ideally suited to the two smaller works, especially the filigree details of Haydn's Hob. XVI:52, sober wit enlivening themes like the grace-note-inflected bridge theme of the first movement, which can be too cute in other hands. Velvety runs and a puckish rapidity in the finale balanced a less successful slow movement, an overly slow tempo turning the piece to the soporific side. The slow movement of Mozart's K. 576 had the opposite effect, given a more transparent simplicity, surrounded by sweet-toned outer movements, full of carefully groomed sounds.

Scholar Lewis Lockwood noted that Beethoven, around the time he was composing the op. 111 sonata, wrote in his Conversation Book, "The moral law within us, and the starry heavens above us. Kant!!!" Lockwood goes on to observe, "It is just this spirit, of the mortal, vulnerable human being striving against the odds to hold his moral being steady in order to gather strength as an artist to strive toward the heavens -- it is this conjoining that we feel at the end of Opus 111 and in a few other moments in Beethoven's last works."

While Evgeny Kissin's performance of this sonata impressed me by the strength and daring of the fugal sections of the first movement and the polish of the trills section, Schiff went for angelic delicacy, growing softer and softer toward the sonata's conclusion. Schiff has rightly described the tendency to hear the dotted variation of the second movement as something akin to "boogie-woogie" as a banality, an anachronistic equation of the score with a style of music that would not be invented for another century. If Schiff's interpretation does not sound jazzy, as it did not, it is to his credit.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A venerated pianist puts sonatas on a pedestal at Strathmore (Washington Post, February 26)

Zachary Woolfe, Andras Schiff Deconstructs Sonatas (New York Times, November 1, 2015)

Mark Swed, Pianist Andras Schiff mesmerizes with last sonatas of 4 composers (Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2015)

Melinda Bargreen, Light as a feather, mighty as Beethoven — András Schiff enchants with piano sonatas (Seattle Times, October 13, 2015)
At the end of the piece, Schiff attempted to hold the audience in silence for a moment of reflection, but a listener somewhere in the hall, determined to show everyone that he knew what the end of op. 111 was, insisted on applauding. It was a rude gesture, to which Schiff responded testily, but performers sometimes go too far in trying to create these moments of profundity after the music has ended. (Christoph Eschenbach tends to to do this a lot with the National Symphony Orchestra, and it feels affected.) If a performance is that profound, the audience will hold itself silent.

There is likely a reason for Schiff's softer, darker approach to the Beethoven and to Schubert's D. 960. Two years ago, Schiff recorded this Schubert sonata and other music by Schubert on a fortepiano built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820 (a nice companion disc to Decca's re-released set of Schiff's earlier Schubert sonata cycle), as well as Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Bagatelles on the same instrument before that. Schiff, in his program notes on the Schubert ECM disc, described the fortepiano's "tender mellowness, its melancholic cantabilità," and it is just these qualities that he brought out most from the Bösendorfer on the Strathmore stage. He took all of Schubert's gradations of piano seriously, with playing that was exceedingly delicate and a little too mannered, but with exquisite layering of voices in the slow movement. An encore, the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations, finished off the evening.

Daniil Trifonov joins the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (March 14) for Prokofiev's third piano concerto, presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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