In the past several years, the Hungarian pianist Sir András Schiff has performed several times at Walt Disney Concert Hall. His programs have been ambitious to say the least. For example, across two seasons, from 2008 to 2009, Schiff performed the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas. Then across two more seasons, from 2012 to 2013, Schiff performed the complete works for keyboard by Bach. As if scaling those pianistic heights weren’t enough, in three concerts in 2015, Schiff performed the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. (Search Culture Spot for “Schiff” to peruse our reviews.) These undertakings are not just ambitious, they are monumental, requiring not only physical and intellectual stamina and pianistic skill of the utmost quality, but a musical knowledge that may be unsurpassed among most of today’s pianists.
Thus, it was a very pleasant surprise to see the program he chose for his return to Disney Hall on Sunday evening. The selections consisted largely of introspective miniatures from some giants of the piano repertoire, mostly from late in their lives.
Schiff had the piano placed at an angle so that the keyboard could be seen not only by those on the east side, but also by those in the orchestra section. This placement also enabled those sitting on the west side to better hear the piano. It worked magnificently.
Schiff began the program with the Theme with Variations in E-flat major, WoO 24, “Ghost Variations” by Schumann. Written when he was in the throes of mental illness and two years before his untimely death, Schumann wrote this sublime set of variations on a theme he had composed years earlier.
The entire set lasts only about 11 minutes, and its calm, melodic mood belies the anguish Schumann must have been experiencing. Just as Beethoven in some of his later sonatas, Schumann was able to momentarily overcome his torment to compose some exquisitely simple and beautiful music. And Schiff set the mood for the entire recital with his gentle, almost ethereal approach to the variations.
As the last notes of the Schumann died out, Schiff immediately began the Three Intermezzos, Op. 117 by the composer whom Schumann championed and who became his and his wife Clara’s close friend: Brahms. In fact, the transition was so seamless, it was almost difficult to tell where the Schumann left off and where the Brahms began. Schiff also performed in this recital the remaining late works for solo piano by Brahms, including the Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118 and Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119.
After exploding on the musical stage with large-scale works for piano, including the piano sonatas that Schumann called “veiled symphonies,” the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, which itself began as a symphony, and the four-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, not to mention numerous chamber works with piano, at the end of his life, Brahms chose to return to a form that harkened back in more than one way to his four Ballades, Op. 10.
The Op. 117, 118 and 119 piano pieces are reflective, introspective and deeply personal compositions whose seeming simplicity belies the difficulty in pulling them off musically because one must convey the depths of emotion of an aging master. These pieces not only require musical skill, but a wealth of musical knowledge and an understanding of life that someone of Schiff’s age obviously has.
Schiff then moved on without pause to the Rondo in A minor, K. 511 by Mozart, which somehow worked sandwiched between two works by Brahms written almost 100 years later. Although written almost 100 years earlier, the Rondo in A minor looks forward to the Romantics with its melancholic mood. As he moved seamlessly between the late Romantic Brahms and the classical Mozart and back to Brahms’ Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, Schiff was able to pull off a feat of magic — making the two composers sound more like contemporaries.
The first half of the recital was a marathon that lasted about an hour and required the utmost concentration from the audience. Lacking in pianistic fireworks that audiences seem to relish these days, Schiff’s first half was an exploration of pure music. Even though interspersing the Mozart between the Brahms might have seemed to be awkward, somehow it worked. Schiff was either telling a musical story or he didn’t want the applause from the audience between compositions to disturb his intense concentration. Either way, it was a compelling and emotionally draining, but ultimately extremely satisfying hour of music. Schiff was in a zone, seemingly impervious to the audience’s increasing restlessness, and delivered a mesmerizing performance.
Schiff’s second half included three works by the three Bs and began with the Prelude and Fugue No. 24, in B minor, BWV 869 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 by Bach. Schiff is well known as a Bach scholar, and his playing shows his complete understanding of the music. And as he did throughout the entire recital, Schiff was able to let the inner musical voices speak.
He followed the Bach — again without interruption — with the Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119 by Brahms. Again, Schiff showed why he is equal to any Brahms interpreter on the piano, letting the music sing. He could have played the concluding Rhapsody more energetically, but again he was interested in conveying the music, not impressing the audience with flashy technique.
Schiff concluded with the Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux” by Beethoven. Although one couldn’t quibble with hearing a pianist of Schiff’s caliber play a great Beethoven sonata, this was the only piece that felt somewhat out of place. Maybe Schiff was trying to leave the audience a little more invigorated. Either way, once he was underway, the audience was treated to a great performance.
Schiff brings out the pianistic intelligentsia in LA, and they weren’t going to let him leave without an encore, which he obliged by playing an early work by Bach, the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, BWV 992, itself a 12-minute piece. Then, even though more than half the audience had left, spent from an evening of musical demands, Schiff returned, and with a smile on his face, played the Happy Farmer by Schumann (Suzuki students will recognize this piece from Book Two). As both he and the audience laughed, everyone left on a happy note.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA