Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More Late Sonatas

Sir Andras Schiff played the second (and last) of his recitals in Vancouver this year. The evening was an intense emotional experience – two massive works, Beethoven’s Op. 111 sonata and Schubert’s B-flat major sonata, D. 960 – and the experience left me spiritually elated, though physically drained.

The artist opened his concert with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major, Hob XVI:52, the first of his three “London” sonatas. Among the three sonatas, and even among Haydn’s other sonatas, this one is perhaps the largest in scope and in size. In his performance, Schiff’s taste and sense of timing, especially comic timing, were impeccable. The many rapid scale runs in the first movement, in mm. 9 to 10, mm. 17 to 19, for example, were like beautiful strings of pearl. Throughout the sonata, Schiff managed to convey the drama of the music while maintaining an incredible sense of lightness, and never pushing the instrument. The closing of the phrase at m. 26, I thought, was played especially beautifully and elegantly. I loved the sound he evoked with the clock-like theme at mm. 27 to 29, with the pairs of 32nd and 16th notes. The rapid 32nd-note runs for the right hand at mm. 30 to 32 had a wonderful breathless quality and, again, a beguiling lightness. The pianist was masterful in his playing of two brief transitional passages, in the two measures (mm. 44 to 45) that introduce the development, and in the octave passage (mm. 109 to 110) that precede the coda/codetta, Schiff changed the mood and the colour of the music like a sorcerer.

I once again marveled at Schiff’s sense of timing in the Adagio, where he illuminated the beauty of the music for all of us to behold. The obsessive repeated notes that open the third movement, and the prevailing feeling of a wild chase, remind me of the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Op. 10, No. 2. Here, Schiff really took us on a roller coaster ride (albeit a brief one) and realized to perfection the youthful and unbuttoned humour of an elderly Haydn.

For his final sonata, Beethoven returns to the key C minor, one that has such special meaning for him. I believe that in spite of its relative brevity, the Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, is one of the composer’s most intensely emotional works. In the opening of the 1st movement, Schiff managed to immediately create a sense of gravity and massiveness. In the rapid 16th-note runs at mm. 23 to 28, and in the rapid 16th-note right hand broken chords with left hand octaves at mm. 58 to 61 (and again at mm. 132 to 138), Schiff really held back and played them quite deliberately, with great depth of sound, giving them a real sense of weight.

In the Arietta that followed, I felt that Schiff played the movement as one long breath, as we also held our breath until the last sounds evaporated. It was a cathartic experience to live through. Schiff’s interpretation of the work last night reminded me of incredible performance of this work by Claudio Arrau who, in the last movement, really took us into another realm. In the trills that dominated the final pages of this sonata, Schiff, like Arrau, also took us into the realm of spiritual communion with the composer.
I appreciated the intermission that followed the Beethoven, although I was wishing for a quiet place to prepare myself for the equally emotionally demanding second half. For the second half, Schiff gave us his view of Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 576. Beauty of sound was what struck me about this performance. I believe this is significant because Mozart, who is usually sparing with expressive markings in his score, wrote in this movement the word dolce, twice. Schiff’s shaping of the phrases was impeccable, especially at mm. 41 to 45 and at mm. 121 to 125, where there was palpable warmth emanating from the music. The pianist also made me aware of the contrapuntal intricacies of Mozart’s writing in this movement, especially in the beauty of the writing for the left hand. In the second movement, I especially appreciated the attention Schiff gave to the left hand accompaniment figures, where there was a feeling of weightlessness as well as an understated beauty. The artist’s playing of the concluding Allegretto was witty and charming. What particularly stayed with me was the theme in the left hand, with brief interjections by the right hand, at mm. 26 to 29, and again at mm. 117 to 120.

Schiff’s playing of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, overwhelmed me. After the opening chorale-like melody, the G-flat major theme was understated (Schubert did write pp, but most pianists play it more prominently), but the otherworldly beauty of this theme really shone through clearly. His pacing throughout the long movement was laudable, and the many pregnant pauses were charged with meaning.

If Schubert was touching death with the slow movement of the A major sonata, Schiff played on Sunday, the slow movement of this sonata must be death itself. The pianist did not play the opening like a dirge, acknowledging Schubert’s indications of andante as well as sostenuto. His voicing of the chords in the opening of the A major section was almost as if choirs of angels were descending from heaven to soothe us.

As if he didn’t want to abruptly dispel the mood of the slow movement, Schiff played the beginning of the scherzo with a true pianissimo. Again the pianist was mindful of Schubert’s indication of con delicatezza. In the fourth movement, I appreciate Schiff’s choice of tempo, which I thought fit the movement properly within the larger scheme of the entire sonata. Under Schiff’s hands, even the very tricky second theme (m. 86), with rapid 16th-notes in the right hand, and 8th-note interjections in the off beat by the left hand, sounded graceful.

With the final chords of the movement that end the work with a pyrrhic victory, the audience stood up to cheer, as did I. In his own notes for the recital, Sir Andras Schiff writes that Schubert’s playing of his own lieder, “transported his listeners to higher spheres and brought tears to their eyes.” I could easily say the same for Schiff’s own performances these last few days.

No amount of sophisticated technology can replace the power of live music making, especially when it is under the hands of a master like Andras Schiff.

Under the urging of the audience, Schiff very graciously played for us the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was playing with a luminous quality, of fluidity, and flexibility. Could this have been a tantalizing preview of Sir Andras Schiff’s next appearance in our city?

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