Monday, April 23, 2018

Celebrating Twenty Years

How fortunate we are in Vancouver to have had the opportunity to hear performances from two distinguished pianists, one at the height of his maturity, and the other one still at the early stages of his journey in music. Early this month, Sir András Schiff gave a magnificent recital under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Yesterday afternoon, Rafal Blechacz gave an equally memorable performance to celebrate the 20thanniversary of The Vancouver Chopin Society.

The common work between the two concerts was Mozart’s late masterpiece, the Rondo in A minor, K. 511. Like Schiff, Blechacz did not fall into the trap of lugubriousness, and wisely kept the impetus of the music. Uncommon in someone so young, Blechacz has a real sense of the architecture of the work, and his playing gave me the feeling of a connection between the first and last note of the music. This was apparent in every work, large or small, that he played yesterday.

Blechacz gave an inspired reading of Mozart’s great Sonata in A minor, K. 310, one of the composer’s most technically challenging and dramatic works. In the opening, the young artist managed to avoid making the left hand chords sound percussive, very difficult on the modern piano, by making those chords part of the larger texture of the music, rather than treating them as mere accompaniment. It is remarkable that so young an artist can infuse the music with a palpable simplicity and naturalness, as he did in this work. In the second movement, he perfectly balanced the contrast between the lyrical and the very dramatic. It is perhaps no accident that the pianist’s most recent recording was devoted to the works of Bach. In the third movement, there was a lightness and textual clarity in his playing that reminds me of how he approached the dance suites of Bach in his recording.  There was a real balance in the vertical and horizontal in the music in the way he approached this final movement. 

I am personally in awe of Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 101, one of the composer’s most original works. It takes any pianist real courage to tackle this musically and technically challenging sonata. Although regarded as one of Beethoven’s late sonatas, I feel that, conceptually and musically, it is closer to the “experimental” sonatas like Op. 81a. Blechacz availed himself magnificently in this incredible work. Once again, there was a sense of connection between the simple rocking motive of the opening measures and the triumphal final chords in the third movement. In the left hand octaves at mm. 7 to 11 of the first movement, he conjured an almost organ-like sound. The last time I heard a sound like that on the piano was from Alfred Brendel, when he gave an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (in the left hand octaves of the final fugue.) In the second movement, which almost foreshadows the march from Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, Blechacz was technically impregnable, and there was an effortlessness that came across in the music. His acute sense of rhythm served him well in the dotted-rhythmic figures throughout the movement. So wonderful was his sense of musical timing that the brief Adagio, ma non troppo, con affecttomovement became a perfect intermezzo, a sort of musical Segway, before the final movement. His playing of the brief return of the first movement’s opening theme, lasting only seven measures, was charged with meaning. In the final movement, there was a Glenn Gould like clarity in how he handled the musical texture. Blechacz’s playing of the fugue was exhilarating.

The second half of the recital began with Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22. To me, this work often sounds like four beautiful but disparate character pieces rather than movements of a sonata. It is a credit to the artist that he managed to once again highlight the architecture of the overall work. Blechacz captured the fever, the sense of urgency and desperation in the first, third, and final movements. For me, the highlight was his playing of the gorgeous second movement, where he shone a light on the music like a precious gem. 

I am sure many people went to yesterday’s performance to hear Blechacz’s Chopin, and he certainly did not disappoint. In his performance of the composer’s Mazurkas, Op. 24, I was very much reminded of the playing of Arthur Rubinstein. There was again this feeling of simplicity and naturalness that was beguiling. His timing in each of the four dances was impeccable; as was his sense of rubato, not exaggerated or contrived, but giving the sense that it was just as the music should be. I was particularly taken with his interpretation of the Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No. 2, where he took a slightly slower tempo than usual, but did not take away any of the music’s natural flow. 

Blechacz concluded his recital with Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. Yes, under the hands of a great artist, it is possible to make this work sound fresh and original. He played the famous opening theme with great simplicity and lightness, but with no lack in the dignity and pride that are so inherent in this music. As in the mazurkas, his sense of musical timing was palpable throughout this performance. His playing of the octave passage in the B section was breathtaking, but not showy. 

It had been a very generous afternoon of music making, but after much urging from the audience, Blechacz granted us an encore of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2, a work that Schiff also played in his recital. Blechacz’s beautiful and thoughtful playing of this beautiful autumnal work by Brahms was a perfect ending to this very memorable of great performances of great music. 

In a world that is full of technically perfect pianists, it is refreshing to hear an artist, especially one so young, who does not make technical proficiency his primary concern. Throughout the afternoon, I never thought of how “well” he played the piano, but how beautiful the musicwas. Certainly I cannot think of a higher tribute to this supremely gifted young artist.

April 23, 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Songs of Farewell

Sir András Schiff made one of his always-welcomed visits to Vancouver and gave us a magnificent recital of music that centers on the idea of farewell.

In each half of the concert, Schiff made the request that there would be no applause until the end. This certainly made for an intense exercise in concentration and stamina not just for the artist, but the audience as well. 

Schiff began his performance with Robert Schumann’s rarely played Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat major (“Ghost Variations”), WoO 24. With the exception of the 5thvariation, I found this music, written when the composer was already exhibiting obvious signs of severe mental illness, much more classically oriented and less “hallucinatory” than earlier works such as Kreisleriana. Schiff has reached a stage in his artistic development where he is now like a master actor, whose smallest gestures – the wink of an eye, the move of a finger - convey volumes. With this work, and with every work in last night’s recital, the music came across with a naturalness and simplicity that was astounding. 

The artist must have given much thought to the structure of his programme, for there was not only a recurring leitmotif in all the pieces performed, but also logic in the key relationship of the order of the works. The next work on the programme, Brahms’ Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117, begins with the heavenly lullaby in E-flat major, the same key as the Schumann just played. Schiff played this familiar work somewhat faster than Brahms’ Andante moderatoindication, probably to avoid the trap of lugubriousness so many pianists fall into, thereby keeping the impetus of the music and infusing it with a lightness not often found in performances of this work. The Intermezzo in B-flat minorthat followed was played with textual clarity and an acute awareness of the beauty of the many subtle harmonic shifts. In the Intermezzo in C-sharp minor, Schiff voiced the opening octave passage beautifully. In the Piu moto ed espressivosection, the layering of the musical texture was deftly and masterfully handled.

Almost as a sorbet to clean the palate between courses, Schiff then moved on to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511. A minor is of course the submediant chord of the key of C-sharp minor, the key of the previous work performed. I appreciated the pianist’s tempo choice for this work, which brought out the dance-like character of the music. When the theme returns at the end (m. 163), I was surprised to hear the artist giving much prominence to the arpeggiated left hand “accompaniment”, thereby creating almost a lovely countermelody to the by-now-familiar theme.

Schiff ended the first half of his recital by returning to Brahms, with the Sechs Klavierstüke, Op. 118. The first of the six pieces, not surprisingly, is in the key of A minor. In this opening Intermezzo, Schiff seemed to aim to downplay the dramatic elements of the music, focusing instead of the beauty of the music’s many harmonic shifts. Surprisingly, the music did not come across with less sweep and passion. When I looked at the score, I discovered that Schiff was merely observing Brahms’ indication of only fortein the dramatic opening of the work. In fact, there was not one single indication of fortissimoindication from beginning to end, a surprisingly discovery considering how this work is generally played with much force and sound by many pianists. The popular and justly famous Intermezzo in A majorwas played with a flowing quality and a tenderness that was palpable. Schiff beautifully brought out the countermelody in the F-sharp minor middle section, and the voicing of the piu lentochords was nothing short of masterful. The Ballade in G minor was played with a lightness not often found in performances of this extroverted work. The B major section was played with an astounding degree of subtlety as well as beauty of sound. The difficult return to the opening G minor section was masterfully handled. In the Intermezzo in F minor, for me the most elusive of the set, there was a logic and clarity of intent that gave this music a naturalness not often found in many performances. I was very moved by Schiff’s account of the Romanze in F major. He brought out an inner beauty and glow of the music that I had not heard before. It was astoundinghow he played the tricky D major middle section with an absolutely breathtaking lightness. In the opening of the E-flat minor Intermezzo, Schiff magnificently brought out the stunning swirling harmonic clouds of the left hand like a great painter of sound. The artist also perfectly captured the music’s bleakness, the barren musical landscape created by Brahms. Not even in the middle octave section, where most pianists would let loose, did Schiff lose sight of the highly intimate nature of the work. 

It is of course always a treat to hear András Schiff play Bach, as he did last night with the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor, BWV 869. This work, the last of Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier, fitted in well with the general “mood” of the recital. In the Prelude, Schiff created an almost orchestral texture by playing the left hand with incredible lightness, almost like the pizzicato of violins, and colouring the right hand theme as if played by woodwinds. In the Fugue, Schiff wisely did not overplay the tragedy of the music, with all those falling minor seconds, but injecting it with a kind of wistfulness. 

The programme then returned once again to Brahms, with the Vier Klavierstüke, Op. 119. In the Intermezzo in B minor(again the key relationship with the previous work performed), the opening falling thirds were played with a great deal of resistance. I always feel that these falling thirds shouldsound slower as they descend, and I was grateful that Schiff did just that. In the Intermezzo in E minor, the opening was played with incredible lightness and subtleness, almost like the gentle palpitations of the heart, perfectly conveying the composer’s indication of poco agitato.In the Andantino graziososection, this great master once again brought out the inner beauty of Brahms’ writing. In a word, Schiff’s playing of the Intermezzo in C majorwas simply breathtaking. In the glorious Rhapsodie in E-flat major, Schiff played this music with a quiet resolution, and gracefully conveyed the dense texture of the A-flat major middle section.

Continuing on the idea of farewell, Schiff concluded his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”). His performance of this experimental sonata by Beethoven had an overarching logic and conveyed the sense of connection between the first note to last. In the opening Adagio, there was a feeling of simplicity, but at the same time highlighting all the musical details Beethoven lavished on these mere sixteen measures. At measure 8, Schiff placing of the C-flat major chord was just perfectly done. In last night’s performance, he made me aware of the ingenuity of the writing in the left hand. His playing of the two-note motifs in the left hand (mm. 95 to 109) gave the impression of the sound of the clacking sound of the horse’s hooves. In the second movement, the emotional core of the entire sonata, Schiff perfectly conveyed the stark beauty of the music. I loved the lightness with which he played the 32ndand 64thnotes at m. 33. His playing of the opening of the third movement reminded me of Hans von Bülow’s admonition to a pupil who tried to play this work, “Stop! In the joy of reunion, you rush off, get entangled in the train of your dress, crash down, and smash all the flowerpots in the garden!” Indeed, Schiff brought forth the humour of this movement like a master storyteller. I loved the sound he conveyed in the staccato octaves at mm. 37 to 44, and again at mm. 130 to 137. Throughout the movement, the overwhelming joy of the reunion was constantly palpable. 

This wonderful artist’s thoughtfulness in programming extended even to his encore, where he gave us J. S. Bach’s early and rarely played Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992. The work, inspired by the departure of his brother on a long journey, is, in spite of its title, filled with good humour, from the well-wishers’ descriptions of the dangers of the journey, to the sound of the horse carriage, and finally to the fugue based on the notes played by the post horn. Schiff did not pretend the work to be greater than it is, but played it with his usual beauty of sound, perfection in articulation, and relished in the humour inherent in the music.

Throughout this unforgettable evening, there was a sense of communion between artist, composer and audience. What a privilege for all of us who were there, to be able to partake in some share of András Schiff’s artistry, and to have glimpse into his inner world, as well as the inner world of the composers.

Patrick May
April 11, 2018