Playfulness and tragedy blended with mastery in András Schiff recital

Sat Apr 24, 2021 at 12:49 pm

András Schiff’s streaming recital was presented by Washington Performing Arts.

Washington Performing Arts first presented a recital by András Schiff in 1984. He returns to the area every few years, but this spring his appearance was canceled by the pandemic. On Friday night, the presenter streamed a recital he recorded last December, for a small, socially distanced audience in St. Peter’s Church in Zurich.

The program featured the four composers for whom the Hungarian-born pianist is best known. As expected of this éminence grise of the piano, Schiff curated the selections with a savant’s care, centering the recital on the two piano sonatas Beethoven composed in the key of A-flat major.

Bach’s Three-Part Invention No. 9, set in the related key of F minor, made a severe introduction to Beethoven. Schiff expertly unwound the triplex strands of this piece at a somber pace, giving independence to Bach’s melodic ideas, all charged with chromatic inflection. Bach runs these motifs through all three voices, in every conceivable combination with each other and sometimes themselves.

The young Beethoven gave his Piano Sonata No. 12 an unconventional opening, a charming set of variations on a chipper triple-meter theme. Schiff traced this alluring melody with his exacting touch in each variation, as it popped out of increasingly complex textures. Only the rueful third variation, set in the parallel minor, echoed the tragic character of the Bach piece and hinted at the heart of this sonata, the “funeral march on the death of a hero.”

Schiff gave the little Scherzo movement, in the second position, a lightly pedaled, devilish air. The funeral march then grew from a hushed opening into a solemn procession of orchestral sweep, also delineated with thoughtful precision. Its ultimate turn back toward A-flat major segued with almost no pause into the finale. That movement’s running theme, in constant streams of sixteenth notes, added a comic note to this enigmatic sonata.

Tragedy returned with the piece that came between the two Beethoven sonatas, Mozart’s masterful Adagio in B Minor. As he did with the Bach Sinfonia, Schiff moved slowly through the piece, carefully detailing each melodic turn. Mozart wanders through many chromatic vagaries, all connected and intertwined by this master technician of nuance. (Schiff also expounded on the form and deeper meanings of the piece in a brief post-concert lecture.)

Schiff gave the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 a whimsical feel, taking his time with the many light arpeggiated figures that adorn the piece. The interpretation was shot through with joyful introspection, answered by a mischievous second movement. Beethoven quoted two humorous folk songs in this rather compact Scherzo, again outlined with studious care by Schiff.

The crux of the recital, a conflict between tragic reflection and playful silliness, reached its full expression in the complex finale of this sonata. As the almost trivial Scherzo faded in its enigmatic ending, Schiff took his time unpacking the meaning of each note of the curious recitative that linked it to the sad arioso at the core of the finale. Because of the careful programming, its strains of A-flat minor recalled the funeral march of the earlier sonata.

In a delightful touch, Beethoven forces the tonality back into the major mode with a playful fugue that interrupts the tragic mood twice. The second time the fugue comes back in an inverted form, a contrapuntal wink from Beethoven that Schiff relished with a gentle touch, underscoring a countermelody that echoes one of the folk songs from the Scherzo, “Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich.”

The choice of encore seemed to reinforce the notion of whistling past death, tragedy made lighter by humor. Schiff rendered Schubert’s Impromptu in A-Flat Major (Op. 142, no. 2) as if improvising it, effortless and spontaneous in its melodic innovation, not concerned with trying to impress through speed or virtuosity.

As Schiff certainly knows, Schubert likely derived the melody of this piece from the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12. With his own clever programming elbow nudge, Schiff brought this pandemic recital full circle—back to Beethoven’s amiable variations and not the funeral march.

This concert streams through April 29.

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