András Schiff, Aristocrat of the Piano

Andras Schiff [photo (c) Dieter Mayr]

András Schiff [photo (c) Dieter Mayr]

András Schiff stopped by La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium Friday (Feb. 20) evening to amuse and enlighten his loyal San Diego followers with a traditional program of four piano sonatas by the most familiar Classical era composers, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Although Schiff’s stage demeanor is modest, almost apologetic, at the piano keyboard he is a true aristocrat, his highly refined technique serving the masters with whom he has lived since his earliest studies at the Franz Liszt Academy in his native Budapest. At 61, he remains a touchstone interpreter of the objective, literalist, Germanic piano tradition that previous generations associated with performers and pedagogues such as Rudolph Serkin.

As his program theme, Schiff selected the penultimate piano sonata of each composer, presenting a portion of what he has designated his “late sonatas” project. From his performance, I would hesitate to draw overarching conclusions about these late works, other than observing that they were not strictly bound to the conventions of their time.

Opening with Mozart’s B-flat Major Sonata, K. 570, Schiff announced his signature virtures: a singing touch, vitality of line, unhurried tempos, and thoughtful delineation of musical structure. His Mozart stayed on the chilly side, altough he may have using this piece as a foil to the Beethoven A-flat Major Sonata, Op. 110, that immediately followed it.

Because Beethoven’s score uses so much more of the piano’s range, it was no surprise that Schiff pulled a deeper, more sonorous quality from the La Jolla Music Society’s Steinway. He gave this sonata an unmistakable improvisatory feel, underscoring its frequent and unexpected textural shifts in lieu of drawing out its thematic development. In the power and animation of the fugue Schiff found greatest elation, especially the majesty of the octave bass statements.

Haydn’s two movement D Major Sonata, Hob. XVI:51, lasted less than six minutes, but its rush of extroverted camaraderie was precisely what Schiff’s scholarly program needed.

Schubert affixed the title “Wanderer” to his great C Major Piano Fantasy (and also a song), but any Schubert sonata might rightly claim this term as a subtitle. Schiff took his audience on a spirited 40-minute perambulation through the four movements of Schubert’s A Major Sonata, D. 959, stopping to smell the roses, but never lingering at any point long enough to diffuse the thrill of the journey. I particularly appreciated his sense of a solemn procession that he brought to the second movement Andante, and his will-o’-the-wisp delicacy of the Scherzo figurations. His exuberant account of the Rondo brought the sonata to a majestic close.

Schiff offered a single encore: one of the four Impromptus from Schubert’s Op. 90.

This recital was presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art (700 Prospect St., La Jolla) on Friday, February 20, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. The Music Society’s next recital will feature violinist Gil Shaham on Friday, February 27, 2015, at the same time and place.


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  1. Geoffrey Clow on February 22, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Two wonderful pianists gave recitals in La Jolla last week. Their programs were very different, but each seemed designed to make a point, and both succeeded completely. Schiff’s program of four familiar Classical / early Romantic composers gave him the opportunity to display (as you conveyed so well) the remarkable level to which technique can be refined. It was fun to see a man in his sixties take such childlike joy in employing all of his tools. His judicious pedaling was often very sparing, which made it all the more effective when it became generous; his touch ranged from shivering delicacy to forceful leaps; his keyboard runs were crystal clear; his tempos were rock-steady; the melody lines ranged from bell-like sounding to rich reverberations; and every technique transited myriad gradations. My musical experience is limited, but nonetheless, this performance gave me shivers.

    Another noteworthy performance last week was the Wednesday duo recital by pianist Aleck Karis and cellist Michael Nicolas. This was a modern music performance to seduce and possibly convert the most timid music fan. (I wish you had been there to report the results, Ken.) The program consisted of five “scary” names in modern music, Charles Wuorinen, Earle Brown, Ben Weber, Morton Feldman, and Elliott Carter. The works chosen seemed to achieve several ends: exhibiting key traits of each individual composer, demonstrating the range of techniques in modern music, and demonstrating that its innovation is also very musical in effect. The Wuorinen was atonal yet richly timbral. The Brown let us hear what palettes the instruments can be, beyond our conventional expectations. The Weber used serial techniques, yet reminded me of through-composed melody lines from many centuries ago. The Feldman created the amazing and somewhat disturbing sensation of time stopping. The Carter was a full four-movement sonata culminating the evening, showing how a traditional form evolves to remain relevant and satisfying.

    Karis and Nicolas are master musicians who clearly love their repertoire, but there was something extra-special in their performances Wednesday night. They had concrete, mutually-shared interpretations of the works, and had honed their collaborative performance to a point that I would call definitive.

  2. Ken Herman on February 22, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    I would have covered this concert at UC San Diego, but that night I was in Los Angeles attending L.A. Opera’s production of “The Ghosts of Versailles.” SanDiegoStory does not cover the Los Angeles performance scene, but since the San Diego Opera is opening John Adams’ “Nixon in China” on March 14, I thought the Corigliano work might provide some context or comparisons to the upcoming Adams piece.
    Thanks for your keen observations on this program of Carter, Feldman, Weber, et. al.

  3. KMW on February 22, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    Fortunately, “Nixon in China” is a much more interesting opera than “The Ghosts of Versailles,”. Even w/o Patti Lupone.

  4. Ken Herman on February 23, 2015 at 8:28 am

    “Nixon in China” launched Adams’ career as an opera composer, including strong offerings such as “Dr. Atomic,” which was produced at the Met after its San Francisco Opera debut. It appears that “The Ghosts of Versailles” has stalled Corigliano’s budding opera career.

  5. Bill Eadie on February 28, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    I saw The Ghosts of Versailles on Thursday evening. James Conlon’s pre-performance lecture helped enormously with my ability to follow the opera, both dramatically and musically. I was very impressed with the quality of the individual singing, as well as the ability of the ensemble to act as a unit (local favorite Darko Tresnjak served as stage director). Marilyn Horne, who originated the role played by Patti LuPone in this production, was in attendance Thursday, and she received a warm ovation when introduced at the lecture. Mr. Corliagno was rapturously received at his curtain call. I’m hoping that the success of this production will encourage other companies to give this fine work a try.

  6. Ken Herman on February 28, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Bill, I agree that L.A. Opera’s production of “The Ghosts of Versailles” was sumptuous, the singers were clearly A-list, and the direction was sharp at every turn. And Conlon is a persuasive apologist for the work.
    But the opera is, in my analysis, fundamentally flawed. Composer and librettist attempted a grand opera buffa in the first act, but did not have sufficient plot to happily resolve in the second. So they turned their buffa into an opera seria with the trial of Marie Antionette and allusions to the bloody rampages of the Revolution. From a dramatic point of view, I found this rather empty.

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