On Sunday evening, Sir András Schiff concluded his three-part series of the final sonatas of Haydn (Sonata in E-flat major, Hob. XVI-52), Mozart (Sonata in D major, K. 576), Beethoven (Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111) and Schubert (Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960). Schiff performed the Haydn and Beethoven in the first half and the Mozart and Schubert in the second half. That means each half opened with the two lightest sonatas and closed with the two more serious sonatas.
All three sonatas were written within a 40-year period between 1789 (for the Mozart) and 1828 (for the Schubert). Another interesting fact is that even though Haydn was born 24 years before Mozart, he outlived him by 18 years. Thus, his last piano sonata was actually written five years after Mozart’s.
The final Haydn sonata has all the signature features of a Haydn sonata except, because Haydn had already met and to some degree taught the young Beethoven, there are echoes of Beethoven in it. It opens with a majestic E-flat chord and is one of the longer of Haydn’s sonatas, especially in Schiff’s hands. The sonata still contains some very Haydnesque touches, such as the sudden starts and stops and humor. It shows the composer at the height of his compositional power for the keyboard.
The Beethoven Op. 111 represents the culmination of his sonatas for the piano. In two movements, Beethoven explores an incredible range of sound and emotions. From the dramatic first movement in his tragic key of C minor marked Maestoso (Majestic) to the second movement, Arietta, which Schiff calls “one of the wonders of mankind,” and which he says wouldn’t have this “extraordinary effect on us without the preparation of this very dramatic, very dark first movement.” One can wax philosophically about the poignancy of this last sonata, especially how the second movement seems to fade into the ether at the end, possibly portending death, but unlike Schubert who was in fact dying as he wrote his last sonata, Beethoven lived another five years after he wrote his Op. 111.
Mozart’s final sonata for piano is shorter and actually more formally structured than the Haydn sonata. It is amazing not only for the music, but considering that Mozart at the time was facing staggering debts, there is no hint of any anguish, as there is in the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. It is yet another example of the perfection that characterizes many of Mozart’s compositions.
The first movement of Schubert’s sonata starts with the simplest of hymns, but is then transformed into a vast landscape of musical ideas lasting 20 minutes, which is more than the length of the entire Haydn and Mozart sonatas. The second movement is devastatingly heartbreaking with high notes played in the main section by the left hand crossing over the right, giving the impression of funeral bells. The third movement, usually a rousing scherzo, is instead a light and delicate (con delicatezza) scherzo played very softly throughout. The fourth movement juxtaposes a fairly light main section with an abrupt Beethoven-like F minor intrusion, which resolves back to the major. The movement ends triumphantly with a presto.
From the first majestic E-flat chord of the Haydn to the concluding B-flat notes of the Schubert, Schiff mesmerized the audience with his impeccable musicianship. In this age of pianistic flash, Schiff is a musician’s pianist. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have a masterful technique. But every note seems to be thought out, and each note is played with a clarity and sonority that makes you attend to that one note. Schiff doesn’t just memorize the notes; he uses his extensive musical and historical knowledge to put them together in a way that seems to convey what the composer intended.
For Schiff, the silence before the piece begins, during the rests and at the conclusion is as important as the notes played before and after. Perhaps that is why he was so disturbed (as was this reviewer) by the loud coughing by some audience members during the Haydn sonata, so much so that before he began the Beethoven he asked the audience not to cough. Still there were coughs, and purses and programs were dropped on the floor. His ire at this constant noise seemed to show through in the second movement of the Beethoven where he played with more intensity and urgency than he might otherwise have.
When the audience brought Schiff out for an encore, one might have expected him to perform another Schubert work, perhaps one of the Moments Musicaux D. 780, or one of the four Impromptus D. 935 from his latest Schubert album. Most soloists would play something fast and flashy, but not Schiff. Leave it to him to play the rarely heard, but beautiful, Variations in E-flat major by Robert Schumann, the last piano work he wrote and the last work he wrote before he was institutionalized. Indeed, another final piano work.
Schiff has an almost cult-like following of people who appreciate a thinking person’s pianist. Unlike other pianists, Schiff is a musician first. He studies the music thoroughly as is evidenced by his frequent lectures. (For example, check out his illuminating lecture on Beethoven’s Op. 11 sonata: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQBq8_5lCEY&list=RDhQBq8_5lCEY#t=0).
What is mesmerizing about Schiff is an extraordinary pianist making beautiful music.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.