Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Late Sonatas

Sir Andras Schiff has been playing his series of three recitals, entitled “The Late Sonatas”, throughout the world. So it is fortuitous for Vancouver to have been included as a “major musical centre” when he gave the first of two recitals here this year (the first recital of the series was given last season). Schiff has gotten to the point in his musical life that anything he does is at least interesting, and worth our attention.

One can tell a lot about the personality of the performer by how he or she walks onto the stage. Schiff exudes utter calmness as he levitates towards the piano, sits down, and meditates for a brief moment before he puts his hands on the keyboard. This would have been inconsequential if the music making wasn’t of the highest order, which it was Sunday afternoon.

Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 570 that opened the recital, sounds at first like a conventional (conventional in design, that is) work. It is not until the development section, when Mozart guides us through many startlingly “foreign” keys that things become really interesting, so much so that the return to B-flat major (m. 133) comes as a welcomed relief. In the exposition and recapitulation, my attention was drawn to how Schiff illuminated Mozart’s writing for the left hand, as in the quick passagework at mm. 35 to 39 (and at 162 to 169), as well as the left-hand melody at mm. 57 to 62 (and mm 187 to 192). Moreover, his playing of the development section really highlighted the colouristic changes with the rapid key changes.

In the second movement, Schiff made us aware of the dark colours and chromaticism in the B section of the movement, as well as the absolutely radiant beauty of the sudden shift into the coda from an abridged return to a shortened A section. The final Allegretto movement was played with a gentle playfulness and much zest. I find it fascinating that Mozart wrote no dynamic markings for the movement until the 8 measures before the end of the movement, when he wrote 4 different dynamic markings for those final eight bars. Schiff certainly brought out those forte-piano contrasts in those final measures of the movement.

With Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110, Schiff brought us into the inner world of Beethoven’s late period. Schiff’s interpretation of the Op. 110 was a spacious one, and he was unafraid of slight shifts in the pulse of the music - more of a Furtwängler than a Toscanini approach to the work. From mm. 12 to 16, he held on to the first note of each group of 32nd notes very slightly. Perhaps he was acknowledging the dots Beethoven wrote on top of those notes. I believe the composer meant these dots to indicate articulation, rather than the simplistic interpretation of a mere staccato. Schiff never forced a sound from the piano, but rather coaxed the instrument to create the sound he had in mind. Perhaps this somewhat minimized the dynamic contrast in the Allegro molto movement, but it was an entirely valid approach.

In the third movement, Beethoven wrote seven dynamic indications within the first seven measures – Adagio ma non troppo, piu adagio, andante, adagio, meno adagio, adagio, and a return to adagio ma non troppo. Of course these are all indications of slow tempi, but it really shows us how meticulous Beethoven is in indicating subtle shifts in tempi, in the pulse of the music. Schiff’s playing of the repeated A’s at m. 5 were light tiny daggers that pierced the heart, and the entire movement was played with heartbreaking poignancy.

In the final movement, I was stunned by Schiff’s playing of the return of the fugue, with its inverted subject (m. 137). Those few notes were played with such a hushed quality, that it was almost as if the music was tottering at the brink of infinity. It was for me, an incredible moment in what was an already incredible interpretation.

Schiff’s playing of Haydn’s Sonata in D major, Hob. XVI: 51 was infused with a kind of gentle humour, almost like that of a soft-spoken comedian. This was very different to Alfred Brendel’s more unbuttoned approach to the composer’s humour. Both movements were played with a beguiling lightness, the perfect sorbet to cleanse our palate between major courses.

In a fascinating book, Four Last Songs – Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten – authors Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon were struck by how, as composers aged, how, “their creativity functioned – and how differently it functioned – in helping them adapt to the very individual personal situations of their later years.” Hearing this Haydn sonata, as well as the Mozart that opened the programme, certainly reminded me of that statement. Obviously, the elderly Haydn lost none of the spark and humour that he exhibited in his earlier works.

The artist’s interpretation of Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959 was, to me, a very intimate look at this monumental work. That said, I thought Schiff was very successful in bringing us into the very strange and dark sound world in certain parts of the work. In the Andantino movement, the pianist really made that opening theme float, and gave it a kind of weightless quality. I believe that with this haunting opening, Schubert was already touching death. The pianist really conjured up a real musical storm in the middle section of the movement. In the Scherzo, I was really struck by the vast contrast between the delicate and charming with the dark and the demonic. Schiff’s playing of the opening of the last movement, one of the composer’s most congenial melodies, was as warm, as gemütlich as the music demands. Compared with the second and third movements, Schubert doesn’t give us as much contrast in mood. On Sunday, it was almost as if Schiff was leading us through a beautiful journey in sound. At the end of the movement, the pianist really held on for a long time to the fermata of the sustained A, until the last trace of sound evaporated.

Once again, Andras Schiff’s playing yesterday reminded me of Busoni’s statement that during a performance, an artist must lose and find himself at the same time. During yesterday’s concert, I had the feeling that time stood still. On the other hand, when the performance was over, I felt that 90 minutes never passed so quickly. An artist like Schiff took away any awareness of the mechanics of playing the piano. Schiff has never been a musician that seeks to impress. Rather, he is an artist who allows us a brief look into the spiritual and emotional core of the composer’s works, a glimpse into infinity.

I look forward to the second part of the journey this evening.

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