Monday, March 2, 2015

Making Magic

Yesterday afternoon, the air within the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver seemed more rarefied during Andras Schiff’s magnificent recital.

There are for me, two kinds of musician, ones that draw our attention to his or her incredible physical ability at the instrument, and a small and select group, to which Sir Andras Schiff belongs, that transcends his or her instrument, so that the audience is aware of only the beauty of the message, and not the medium. The former group of artists gives us excitement, but the latter brings us into communion with the inner, spiritual realm of the music.

Schiff began his programme with the three principal notes of the C Major chord, in Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI:50. Alfred Brendal once said that during a performance, an artist should lose and find oneself at the same time. Schiff was completely absorbed into Haydn’s sound world; yet the performance was one of wholeness, where the first notes led inevitability to the last chord. Every note was like a pearl within a perfect necklace. Every pause and fermata, even the brief time in between movements, held us in breathless suspense until we hear the next sound. In Alfred Brendel’s lecture on humour in music of the Classical period a few years back, the pianist discussed the third movement of this work at length, highlighting the rambunctiousness of the music. Schiff’s playing of the movement did indeed bring out the humour, but in a way that inspires not a belly laugh, but a gentle chuckle.

I had heard the pianist play Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, before, in Seattle, where he generously gave us the entire sonata as an encore to his performance of the Goldberg Variations! (This brings to mind the story of Rudolf Serkin playing the entire Goldberg Variations as an encore, at the end of which about four people remained in the audience.) For me, yesterday’s performance towered even over that Seattle performance. In the third movement, one rarely hears one variation leads so seamlessly and logically into the next. In the theme and variations, Schiff, I feel, came as close to Beethoven’s markings – Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung – as I have heard. There were a few particularly magical moments in the performance (which is saying a lot) - the final diminuendo at the end of the first movement, the beginning of the B section in the final movement’s fourth variation (m. 106), and the almost unbearably beautiful refrain of the theme at the end, which gave me the feeling of returning from a long and incredible journey. At the end of the sonata, the audience appeared to have been in a trance, not daring to break the magic of the moment by applauding.

Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 545, has been slaughtered by so many piano students, that it really takes a truly great performer to remind us of what a jewel this deceptively simple piece really is. Years ago, I heard a magnificent performance of this sonata by Radu Lupu. Schiff’s performance yesterday was equally beautiful. Schiff observed all the repeats in the sonata, but interjected many tasteful and deliciously beautiful ornaments in the repeats, including a little cadenza at the fermata (m. 52) of the third movement. Schiff really highlighted the beauty of the second movement, and reminding us of its harmonic adventurousness.

In a masterclass, when Murray Perahia was working with a student on the first movement of Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, the pianist commented that this work really belongs to the emotional and sound world of Winterreise. Schiff’s performance of this sonata reminded me of Perahia’s comment. Of all of Schubert’s late sonatas, this work is surely the darkest, angriest, and most demonic. Schiff’s playing of the first movement really highlighted the contrast and constant shifting between the highly dramatic and the extreme lyricism. His voicing of the chords, particularly in the first two movements, was particularly beautiful. In the extended fourth movement, from its gently rollicking opening theme to the determined C Minor perfect cadence that ended the work, Schiff held our attention throughout and made us forget the “heavenly length” of the movement, and the work.

Other than the incredible pianism, musicianship, and a lifetime of musical thinking that went behind the performance, Schiff’s programme was so well thought out that, from the first notes of the Haydn to the end of the Schubert, the entire performance felt like one long breath. As we walked out of the hall after the performance and breathed in the winter air, the world seemed like a better place. Once again, in this age of ready-made music, where we can have classical music, as our local radio station reminds us constantly, “on demand”, performances like yesterday’s remind us of the magic of live music. How fortunate we are that this great artist has chosen to make Vancouver one of his musical homes.

2016 seems like such a long time to wait until Andras Schiff visits us again.  

Patrick May

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