wed 21/10/2020

András Schiff, Wigmore Hall review – passion, reason and refinement | reviews, news & interviews

András Schiff, Wigmore Hall review – passion, reason and refinement

András Schiff, Wigmore Hall review – passion, reason and refinement

From Janáček to Beethoven, the pianist-as-thinker keeps nightmares at bay

Calm amid the storm: Sir Andras SchiffWigmore Hall

How loud can the applause from a scanty, socially-distanced audience sound? Thunderous enough, as the response to Sir András Schiff’s back-to-back recitals at the Wigmore Hall proved. On both Sunday and Monday evenings, the happy few of 112 – the venue’s Covid-era maximum – did their depleted best to raise the roof in answer to Schiff’s unstintingly, and typically, lavish commitment.

How loud can the applause from a scanty, socially-distanced audience sound? Thunderous enough, as the response to Sir András Schiff’s back-to-back recitals at the Wigmore Hall proved. On both Sunday and Monday evenings, the happy few of 112 – the venue’s Covid-era maximum – did their depleted best to raise the roof in answer to Schiff’s unstintingly, and typically, lavish commitment. He gave us 100 uninterrupted minutes of Janáček and Schumann on the first night, capped the next day by the epic trio of Beethoven’s final piano sonatas, op.109, 110 and 111 (with some Bach thrown in for good measure). I heard the first in person and watched online for the Beethoven, enjoying the backs-against-the-wall camaraderie of a live plague-era gig – temperature checks at the door; masked friends trying to spot one another and then chatting over rows of empty seats – but, for the next night, admiring the top-notch sound and vision on the hall’s livestream channel. 

If the Beethoven returned us to one province of Schiff’s pianistic heartland – fans speak in awe of his complete sonata cycle, with lectures, here in the mid-Noughties – the opening concert broke slightly less familiar ground. The pairing of two trail-blazing mavericks allowed Schiff to suggest points of contact between them while never dealing in silly false equivalences. He began with the first book of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, that spellbinding lyric journey into memories of a Moravian folk-world that, at the same time, looks disconcertingly forward to an utterly modern soundscape. Schiff never downplayed the wistful loveliness of miniatures such as “Our Evenings”, “In Tears” and “The Madonna of Frydek”, but this was an unsentimental reading, clear-voiced, forceful, and attuned to the harmonic and chromatic surprises that Janáček always has up his sleeve. To my ears, he didn’t emphasise the disruptive elements that break into this enchanted forest to the degree that Thomas Adès (another champion of this work) does. Still, in pieces such as the finale, gnomically entitled “The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away”, a bright and even fierce attack made the most of this dissonant pastoralism that somehow brings Brahms’s world in line with Bartok’s.

The 18 “dances” of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze alternate, and then combine, the twin faces of the composer’s musical personality: the dreamy, introspective Eusebius and the outgoing, high-spirited Florestan. If Schiff usually sounds more like a Eusebius, here he could give free rein to his Florestan tendencies, with bold dynamic shifts, spanking tempi and dramatic (even melodramatic) phrasing, especially in more extravert numbers such as Etwas hannbüchen (“a cheeky little something”?) or Wild und lustig. The dialogue becomes a dialectic, though, and Schiff truly showed his mettle when one voice weaves into another, action and reflection united in a single ambivalent mood. He closed with wonderful tact and grace, as the gorgeously phrased Wie aus der ferne (“How Far Away”), which really did out-Chopin Chopin under Schiff’s fingers, yielded to a bittersweet farewell waltz in C. 

Janáček’s piano sonata 1.X.1905, aka From the Street, is protest music that anticipates a revolution in art as much as politics. Written to mourn the death of a carpenter shot while demonstrating for a Czech-language university in Brno, it builds into a kind of engagé symbolist tone-poem in which the anguished “Foreboding” of the first movement leads to the keening grief and gloom of the second, “Death”. Unafraid of the odd fortissimo declamation, Schiff gave the impassioned apprehension, and the angry threnody, their due, while making us hear the strain of quieter, tender elegy that softens the edges of this work’s righteous ire. The evening closed triumphally with Schumann’s Fantasie in C, partly inspired like the Davidsbündlertänze by the on-off saga of his courtship of Clara Wieck. You don’t normally (if ever) associate the word “bombastic” with Schiff, but here he seemed determined to prove that he could enter into the show-off Lisztian spirit of this piece as wholeheartedly as more obviously muscular and flamboyant interpreters might. He certainly channelled its barnstorming swagger and mischief, its Stürm und Drang. Yet even he could not quite make me love the galumphing jollity of the second movement, so alarmingly like some beefy offcut from Die Meistersinger. We’re still with the mercurial Schumann, though, and Schiff managed a thrilling mood-switch into the questing melodies of the subdued finale. His playing tantalised us with sly moments of hesitation and delay, as the inward meditations of Eusebius reined in a hypomanic Florestan. 

Watching Schiff’s Beethoven sonatas online, I missed the expectation and excitement of a concert-starved audience, and the sense of occasion that even a thinned-out, distanced crowd can bring. On the positive side, Katy Hamilton offered a worthwhile introduction to the sequence, while the attentive, gimmick-free video direction allowed us to see Schiff’s magic hands at work for extended stretches without any irritating Proms-style cutaways to the rapt punters in the stalls. Back on Beethovenian home ground, Schiff avoided any sense of staleness or routine. Always the thinking pianist, he prefaced his performances with the E major prelude and fugue from the second volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier: a taste of music’s Old Testament to show how it infused the New. As a result, you “heard” Bach – as Schiff intended – speak from time to time in Beethoven’s accents, more insistently than would be the case with other pianists. Of course, that Baroque orientation suits Schiff’s style. The structural clarity and rhythmic finesse of his approach made for illumination, understanding – and, maybe, a shade less excitement than with splashier virtuosi.

That said, the three masterpieces abounded in radiant and transfixing passages. Schiff’s cantabile grace delighted throughout, a ravishing relief from his more austere and ascetic tendencies. In the variations of the third (“Song-like”) movement of op.109, the grave sensuousness of the opening waltz gave way to strenuous (and Bachian) contrapuntal complexity in a riveting transition. In the first movement of op.110, Schiff indicated how genial, even companionable, these famously knotted and turbulent works can sound. But that’s the calm before the storm, of course, as the mighty finale – with its alternations of an elegiac arioso theme and a skin-prickling, heart-clutching fugue – opened up a perfect showcase for Schiff’s blend of lyric serenity and hard-edged architectural vision. 

He never overdoes the Romantic and histrionic aspects of the last sonatas. Indeed, some listeners may have wished for a little more wildness when Beethoven invites the furies in. The advantage of this measured, fastidious – and Bach-rooted – conception is that excitement can build, tension can mount, without any premature leaps into frenzy. In the C minor op.111, the Gothic drama of the maestoso first movement – so like some silent-film monster stalking his victim – had its droll as well as its scary side. But when all hell, and heaven, breaks loose in the second-movement arietta with variations, Schiff knew how to keep his cool and take his time. He managed to make the skeleton or order and pattern audible beneath the thumping, reckless mayhem of music apparently released from any leash. 

As the pace quickens, the syncopations kick hard and the note-values shorten relentlessly in the variations, Schiff still kept a firm hand on the tiller. This wasn’t quite the delirious Kansas City barrelhouse stomp or boogie-woogie it can resemble; more a controlled experiment in musical hallucination with a wise professor in charge. In the closing variations, Schiff’s cool command of the unearthly trills and runs spread an eerie, starlit glitter around the hall, as his tempi cooled the foregoing fevers. His Beethoven can summon rapture as well as refinement, even if reason more than passion tends to take the upper hand. But his punctilious generosity as an artist always comes from, and speaks to, the heart – and never more so than in these dour, embattled days. 

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