Sunday, 31 May 2009

András Schiff Haydn anniversary recital, Wigmore Hall, 31 May 2009

Capriccio in G major, Hob.XVII:1
Piano sonata in G minor, Hob.XVI:44
Fantasia in C major, Hob.XVII:4
Piano sonata in E minor, Hob.XVI:34
Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII:6
Piano sonata in E-flat major, Hob.XVI:52

András Schiff (piano)

31 May 2009 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Haydn’s death. This Wigmore Hall commemoration, the final concert in a weekend of chamber music, was devoted to works for piano solo, performed by András Schiff. Schiff’s imagination seemed more obviously fired by some works, or indeed by some movements, than others, although this may have reflected decisions over the ‘public’ or ‘private’ nature of the music. Even if the pianist’s outwardly communicative qualities varied, nothing was less than good, and much was a great deal more than that.

In addition to three sonatas, Schiff selected three other piano pieces, those three works described by James Webster in the New Grove as ‘the most important’ amongst the non-sonata works: two capriccios, in G major and C major, and the great set of double variations in F minor/major. The first of the capriccios is based on a theme from a folk song, Acht Sauschneider müssen sein. Often I find myself bemoaning preciousness in performances of eighteenth-century music, so I was a little surprised here to wonder whether a little more lightness of touch might have been in order. Perhaps this was a matter of having become somewhat accustomed to hearing Schiff on a Bösendorfer; here, the Wigmore Hall Steinway sounded rather forthright. But this was certainly a performance of ‘public’, ‘concert’ music rather than a case of eavesdropping upon a private chamber. Clarification of part writing and, more importantly still, of Haydn’s wide-ranging tonal plan was exemplary. In true freedom lies organisation, perhaps the greatest lesson of modern German musical and intellectual history. The second capriccio was also treated in ‘public’ fashion, but with greater panache – perhaps partly a matter of the musical material itself. Haydn and Schiff delighted in the varied use of the keyboard. Apparent eccentricities, not least the long, held bass notes, were not tamed but nor were they too heavily underlined. Perhaps Schiff’s greatest virtue throughout was to allow the music to speak for itself, although the danger, not always entirely avoided, may then be of anonymity. No such problems here however: there was abundant vitality, sometimes lacking in aspects of the sonata performances. The conclusion was triumphant, a real example of gathering musical threads together and transforming them into something old but new.

The variations, Hob.XVII:6, benefited from an almost wondrously beautiful touch throughout, although the performance sometimes tended towards the matter of fact. Only sometimes, since the repeated version of the opening F minor theme exuded far greater warmth than the first hearing had commanded, and the trills in the first major variation proved both well voiced and an integral, melting part of the melodic line. The voice-leading in the second minor variation looked forward, as it should, to the Romantic writing of Schubert and even Chopin. But there were other occasions when inwardness seemed almost a matter of Schiff speaking to himself; an audience may or may not be desirable but, should it be present, it needs to become part of a conversation. The coda, by contrast, proved highly dramatic, treated to an exemplary performance. In some senses, however, it was a little late; it did not quite grow out of what had come before. These variations are the fruit of development rather than outright contrast. I was left, a little wistfully, recalling Alfred Brendel’s spellbinding Royal Festival Hall performance last year.

What, then, of the sonatas? The first, in G minor, is an exquisite work, which received an exquisite performance. Both movements were underpinned by a strong sense of rhythm. Haydn’s chromaticism in the first almost approaches that of Mozart, but the melodic figurations and textures, as Schiff well understood, could only indicate Haydn, likewise the surprises and C.P.E.Bach-like rhetorical flourishes. Schiff, rightly in my view, presented the second movement Allegretto more as a follow on than a contrast to the opening Moderato. There were times when I wondered whether this account was becoming a little too inward but there could be no doubting the pianist’s identification with the music.

The beauty of Schiff’s touch, allied to unerring musical judgement, also characterised the performance of the E minor sonata. That restless obstinacy of the first movement’s opening was voiced to perfection: somewhere between Scarlatti and Beethoven. This persisted throughout, albeit without becoming unduly relentless. Schiff’s control of the Adagio’s long melodic lines managed to retain a certain improvisatory quality; again, his tonal command was second to none. My only reservation concerns the music of this movement itself, which I find myself unable to consider as Haydn at his most inspired. However, the transition to the finale was perfectly judged, the finale itself a model of style: sometimes insouciant yet careful to acknowledge the compositional depths.

The final work was the great E-flat major sonata, composed for Therese Jansen-Bartolozzi. In this performance, I sensed a microcosm of the public-private dichotomy that characterised the recital as a whole. The first movement seemed a little too neutral, somewhat under-characterised, partly a product of what seemed to me an unduly fast tempo. I should probably add that I almost always find the tempo of this movement too fast, hankering after an Emperor concerto-like grandeur that rarely, if ever, materialises. Still, what some might think undersold, others might find understated. And once again, Schiff’s control of the harmonic structure was faultless. The final chord, however, sounded odd, almost as if he had elected to make it sound more dramatic than had changed his mind and had therefore pulled back, a little late. Schiff’s skill at sustaining long, vocal lines was once again to the fore in the Adagio. This was allied to a far stronger dramatic sense than had been apparent in the first movement, not only at the harmonic climaxes but also in general, in a more sharply etched projection. The finale was a Presto not only in speed but also, more importantly, in its playful mood. Schiff was not afraid to relax on occasion, though never disruptively. He employed ornamentation too – and why not? This was a fine conclusion to the Wigmore Hall’s anniversary tribute.

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