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.