November 2, 2015

Schiff Sublime at Carnegie Hall

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Pianist András Schiff is a genius. By that I don’t mean to describe an artist of exceptional talent, which nevertheless Schiff proved himself to be with his appearance at Carnegie Hall last Friday night. I intend the original Latin meaning of “generative power” or “inborn nature,” by which his playing was duly possessed. This embodied approach to performance has become clearest since his tenure with ECM started in 1997. Schiff’s latest for the label is an all-Schubert recital spanning two discs and culminating, as did the Carnegie performance, in the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major of 1828. Whereas the album documents his reckoning with a Viennese fortepiano built that same decade, an instrument of concave power that shores up the Schubertian temple against any resistance of preconceptions, for this appearance only the convexity of a Bösendorfer would do. For him these qualities have never been opposite but complementary, as was clear when he sounded Schubert’s ominous trill. But let us, like Schiff, save the best for last.

In addition to its sublime musicianship, Friday’s concert sported a masterful program, sequencing the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and dear, ill-fated Schubert, in that order. Schiff finessed his way through Haydn’s picture-perfect Sonata in E-flat Major (1794) like a skilled orator: No gesture or utterance was wasted. His Adagio was all the more barren for being surrounded by two leafier branches, neither of which shed a single trident in the gusts of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor (1821/22). The latter came only after Schiff had hunched over the keys, as if in prayer, to gather himself. Equal parts brush and chisel, its curious, two-movement structure revealed the independence of Schiff’s fingers, and the composer’s in turn for treating repeats as opportunities for self-discovery and, in the dolorous latter half, holistic expression. The coda nevertheless resounded with affirmation of life.

Had it not been sandwiched between two heavyweights, Mozart’s Sonata in D Major (1789) might have seemed like poor casting. But its placement after intermission was refreshing. Although a subpar sonata, one that inlaid its frame at the expense of a clear scene within it, its technical flourishes emitted from Schiff’s fingers with seaward force. Thus cleansed by lack of challenge, we could navigate Schubert’s winding paths, tenderized to receive their shadows. Schiff opened the sonata like a thumb-worn book and read it aloud to the audience with burrowing grandeur. Despite its length, the first movement was eclipsed by Schiff’s restrained handling of it, which assured that the impact of the final Allegro rung true. Between them were a passionate Andante, in which he barely touched the keys as his left hand arced back and forth over the right, and a sunnier Scherzo. Throughout, Schiff was always moving ahead with the future in mind and all the necessary construction materials at his fingertips.

Just as the Goldberg Variations belong to Glenn Gould, so too does Schubert to Schiff. All the more appropriate that he should end the concert with the second of two encores, playing the Aria from Bach’s masterwork. In his handling it became an open lattice, if not also the vine creeping up it, dreaming of its own birth from seed and soil. Before that we were treated to Schumann’s rarely performed Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) in E-flat Major, featured on Schiff’s 2011 ECM recording of the same name. Although written on the brink of madness, it was as lucid as all else, and showed Schiff as, more than anything, one of the great listeners to ever grace the Carnegie stage. That he played it all from memory would have seemed amazing had it not felt so inevitable.