András Schiff offers dreamy and intimate Schubert at Strathmore
“Beethoven composes like an architect,” Alfred Brendel once said, “Schubert like a sleepwalker.” By the end of András Schiff’s three-hour recital on Tuesday night, presented by Washington Performing Arts, listeners may have felt like somnambulists themselves.
In the Music Center at Strathmore, Schiff played a marathon program of Schubert’s music, including two substantial sonatas and two sets of long occasional pieces. Rarely seeming to rise much above mezzo-forte, it was an exquisite performance, but perhaps too much of a good thing.
In his last three appearances here Schiff completed a three-concert traversal of the final three sonatas of four classical composers, including Schubert. The two sonatas presented here go back one layer chronologically but still remain in the last three years of the composer’s tragically short life. Schiff has recorded all of the Schubert sonatas before, but two years ago he released a Schubert disc on the ECM label, in which he played the composer’s music on a fortepiano built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820.
The instrument under his hands here may have been a modern Bösendorfer, but the sounds he drew from it recalled the fortepiano’s “tender mellowness, its melancholic cantabilità,” as Schiff described it in the CD booklet. In the Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 845, the enigmatic unison motif unifying the first movement was soft and disembodied. Schiff made it something like the mood-setting introduction to one of Schubert’s songs, the slow tempo he chose and the delicacy of touch affecting the tale he then told. The third and fourth movements were also on the slow side, with a nostalgic, nursery song-like lilt in the scherzo’s trio and understated humor in the finale.
Schiff hit the mark most solidly in the second movement, a tender waltz carefully crafted at just the right pacing, with perfectly voiced chords bringing out multiple voices in each variation. The form and graceful interpretation gave the feel of ballet music, especially the ornate decoration of the florid variation, as if played by a solo violin, and the storminess of the minor variation.
Happily Schiff did not take the extended opening movement of the Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894, as slowly as he could have. It is a gorgeous piece of music, and Schiff set the mood of dreamy stasis and sustained it, never losing the dramatic thread of the story. Shortly before Schubert published these two sonatas, in 1825 and 1826, the composer wrote down a brief prose work that he called My Dream. Robert Schumann published this curious account a decade after Schubert’s death, and scholar Peter Pesic has attempted to trace its influence in Schubert’s final sonata. Some of that oneiric quality seemed to guide Schiff’s interpretation of these works, too.
In this sonata the second movement was again the highlight, Schubert always ready to pull another harmonic sleight of hand out of his bag of tricks. The third movement was a slow Menuetto, the meandering trio rendered with music-box sweetness, and the comic strokes of the finale again more for private amusement than drawing big guffaws.
Schiff probably should have chosen to play either the Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946, or the Four Impromptus, D. 935, rather than both. Schiff’s free application of rubato gave the impromptus a pleasing, improvisatory quality, wistful with soft echoes in the first one and alternately sentimental and restless in the second. The fingerwork, incredibly detailed and accurate, cascaded by in the third one, and finally some more forthright playing in the fourth broke the soporific spell.
The Klavierstücke were less suited to Schiff’s strengths at the keyboard, and he played down the virtuoso display of the first one, especially the tremolos. The middle piece was more in the dreamy style that pervaded this program, while the comic syncopations of the third one seemed almost banal by comparison to the more musical impromptus. A single encore, the whirling Impromptu in E-Flat Major (Op. 90, no. 2), reinforced that point.
Washington Performing Arts next presents pianist Richard Goode 4 p.m. Sunday at the UDC Theatre of the Arts. washingtonperformingarts.org; 202-785-9727.