Wednesday, 14 May 2008

András Schiff, piano recital: Schubert, 14 May 2008

Schubert – Four Impromptus, D.899
Schubert – Six Moments Musicaux, D.780
Schubert – Three Klavierstücke, D.946
Schubert – Four Impromptus, D.935

András Schiff (piano)

This was a frustrating recital. András Schiff, it goes without saying, is an extremely fine musician, who has perhaps always been most at home in the Classical repertoire (and Bach). His touch, as once again displayed here, is almost unfailing beautiful, not for its own sake, but at the service of the music. His beloved Bösendorfer piano serves his approach supremely well: infinitely yielding, never strident, at one with the music. One cannot fault his musical seriousness, his absolute lack of empty showmanship, nor the evident fondness of his advocacy for Schubert.

What, then, was the problem? Sad to say, it lay in the programme itself. What could be wrong with an all-Schubert programme? Nothing, but the organisation of this particular all-Schubert programme was unfortunate. To perform the first three sets of pieces prior to the interval made for a very long ‘half’: an hour and a half. For much of the Three Piano Pieces, D.946, a large part of the audience seemed restless and even Schiff seemed at times a little tired. Doubtless the heat did not help, but I suspect the upshot might have been similar even in the dead of winter. It was telling that a number of audience members did not return after the interval – which was a great pity, since there were musical riches aplenty to be heard. However, it was not simply the length of the recital, which, beginning at half-past seven, did not end until about ten past ten. The concentration of so many Schubert pieces, without a single sonata, or indeed movement in sonata form, had the extremely unhappy consequence of making them sound too similar, especially those in ternary form. I am not convinced that the Moments musicaux are heard to best advantage as a set, but they were certainly not in this context; I rather think the programme would have been better without any of them, save perhaps as an encore or two. What might have made very good sense in a recording, namely collecting a good number of non-sonata works by Schubert, does not necessarily work as a recital programme.

I had heard the C minor Impromptu, D.899/1, in the same hall, six nights previously from David Fray. Schiff’s was a different performance, less Romantically volatile, but at least as fine. His subtle rubato was exquisitely tuned to the twists and turns of the music, whilst the Erlkönig-like triplets were suitably implacable. Inner voices, where they existed, were projected powerfully, to what was perhaps a surprising extent; so too were bass lines. The lightness of touch with which Schiff opened the second impromptu provided a great contrast from the outset, without precluding sterner minor-mode moments, even within the opening material, let alone in subsequent sections. Left-hand dissonances later on were keenly projected, in almost Bartókian fashion. Throughout this set, though especially in the second and fourth pieces, I was impressed by the lack of any vain attempt to hide the sectional nature of Schubert’s writing; instead, Schiff made a structurally contrasting virtue of it. Fray had also performed the G flat impromptu, no.3. If his performance had put me in mind of Mendelssohn, then Schiff’s did even more; there were even shades of Bach, in the near-complete obliteration of any distinction between melody and harmony. Here was a voice of great experience, yet an experience in no sense weary.

The Moments musicaux started well and, if the truth be told, continued well; my doubts concerned the programming rather than the performances as such. With the first, Schiff started extremely promisingly, providing a contrasting, quirkier Schubertian voice, married to an intensely lyrical middle section. A truly impassioned outburst performed a similar structural-expressive function in the second. Rhythms were nicely sprung in the celebrated – and considerably shorter – third piece, in F sharp minor. But by the time we reached the fifth, the only truly quick piece in the set, the relief was palpable, this despite great success purely on its own terms in projecting the quicksilver mood swings of the fourth. The sixth piece, sadly, sounded more like a reversion than anything new.

It was with the Three Piano Pieces, D.946, that even Schiff himself began to seem a little tired: not that there were inaccuracies, but dynamic and rhythmic contrasts at least appeared a little dulled at times. The first piece suffered least in this regard; indeed, its mood-swings were very well captured. When it came to the second, the barcarolle sections were achingly beautiful, but I felt that the first of the minor-key episodes was somewhat under-characterised, with the consequence that it came to sound prolix. There was no such problem with the second of these episodes, whose metrical change registered truly magically, exhibiting a pathos all the finer and truer for its complete lack of exaggeration. Audience restlessness, married to an undeniable similarity of mood between the first and third pieces, resulted in a sense of relief that the interval had finally arrived.

Duly refreshed, I felt in a much better position to enjoy the D.935 set of impromptus. There could be no doubt that Schiff was in his element here. Without attempting to wield the pieces closer together than their character could bear – Schumann was surely incorrect to dub them as a sonata in disguise – a looser unity, born of contrast as much as similarity, was confidently forged. The great strengths of Schiff’s technique and musicianship were allowed to shine, without the marring fatigue that had set in during the first ‘half’. For instance, although the second impromptu, in A-flat major, is rather similar in character and indeed in piano-writing, to some of the Moments musicaux, here it gained from its placing with more contrasted pieces. The grand manner of the opening of the first was surely contrasted with the most tender lyricism that followed. During the third, a truly exquisite set of variations, there was a sense of proliferation, of variety, rather than of undue regimentation, which suited Schubert’s brand of variation-writing perfectly. The anguish of the third variation was the more telling for developing, rather than being imprinted upon Schiff’s reading from the outset. And the quirky Hungarian style of the fourth suited him equally. The ambivalence and complications of metre were married to an exquisite legato in the more lyrical sections. There was no lack of virtuosity in the passage-work, but the word seems almost beside the point in describing so utterly musical an account. What a pity, then, that the impact of such a performance remained somewhat blunted by its overall context.

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