On Wednesday, March 25, pianist András Schiff performed the next to last recital in his two-season cycle of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas at Disney Hall. On the program were the Op. 90, Op. 101, and Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”) sonatas, which Schiff played straight through without an intermission – that’s about an hour and a half of non-stop playing. And as if that weren’t enough, he performed two encores – the first of which wasn’t some little throw away ditty, but rather the “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Schiff’s Herculean performance was technically flawless and revealed a range of dynamics that also showed off the acoustics of Disney Hall. Unfortunately, I cringed at each pianissimo because inevitably someone would cough out loud or something would fall off someone’s lap, breaking the spell created by Schiff’s channeling of Beethoven. But even a camera’s flash and the ringing of someone’s cell phone during the “Hammerklavier” didn’t phase Schiff, who during a recital a few years ago at Disney Hall actually walked off stage after several disruptive noises, including a cane falling down some stairs. While I suppose one could quibble about aspects of his interpretations (for example, he plays some passages a little too staccato for my taste), by and large they were spot on.
The last six piano sonatas of Beethoven demonstrate the composer’s growing attraction to Handel as reflected in his increased use of the canon and fugue (in particular, in the fourth movements of Op. 101 and most notably the Op. 106). These baroque techniques are tailor-made for Schiff, who was known as a Bach expert before beginning the daunting project of performing and recording the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in 2004. And Schiff‘s Bach prowess was clearly in evidence in the three sonatas on Wednesday’s program. He even sounded a bit more like Bach than Beethoven in his playing of the Op. 90 and Op. 101.
But with the opening notes of the Hammerklavier, Schiff was definitely Beethoven sitting at the keyboard pounding fortes (and his feet on the pedals). He clearly conveyed the immense feeling of the 14-minute second movement (Adagio sostenuto), which, in a conversation with Martin Meyer, he called “one of the peaks of Western musical history” that “affects … us in the depths of our mind and spirit.”
Schiff did not leave the stage between the first two sonatas and, following one brief trip offstage after the Op. 101, returned to his instrument and immediately launched into the “Hammerklavier,” startling those who were still talking and rustling into paying rapt attention.
His performance of the “Hammerklavier” was the stuff of legends, and despite the difficulty of the sonata, not only for the performer, but also for the listener, Schiff mesmerized the audience until the very last notes were struck.
After numerous curtain calls and loud cheers, Schiff returned to play the “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” by Bach, which he has also recorded. The Fantasy came in waves of arpeggios that made Schiff’s hands undulate across the keyboard.
Not content with just one encore, even one as difficult (and fitting) as the Bach, Schiff rewarded the audience once more with a piece designed to be the finale, this time a true ditty, Mozart’s “Adagio for Glass Harmonica.”
For many, hearing Beethoven’s later piano sonatas, especially by a performer of Schiff’s caliber in a place like Disney Hall, is a religious experience. Fortunately for us, it will happen one more time next Wednesday, April 1.