By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Feb. 17, 2016)
Tuesday evening at Rackham Auditorium, the pianist Sir Andras Schiff began a three-concert traversal of the final three sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, under University Musical Society auspices. This is amazing and extraordinary music in amazing hands, and Ann Arbor is exceptionally lucky not just to hear these concerts – the town is one of only six U.S. cities in which Sir Andras is playing the complete set – but to hear them in the space of a week. Tuesday evening opened with delightful Haydn and ended with sublime Schubert. Herewith, some highlights from Tuesday. More bulletins to follow after Thursday and Saturday’s concerts!
Schiff: Night One
The piano: A Bosendorfer with a hearty, giant, resonant bass and a bright top. Sir Andras exploits the bass to emphasize the gravity, the growl, the blackness in Beethoven Op. 109 and Schubert D. 958, particularly. But throughout, it grounds the music as he brings out bass lines and inner voices. The bass and the top give a 3-D effect — the music takes shape, figuratively, between these poles.
The pedaling: It’s spare mostly, but then misty or cloudy in passages where you don’t expect it. It’s an interesting effect – from Haydn, through the Mozart, and into the Schubert. In the Beethoven, it’s mostly a wet vs. dry contrast. The finger work is crystalline, so the pedaling is alluring rather than muddying. It makes you hear the music very differently – it’s not usual pedaling, but rather a gathering of sonorities into a slight haze. It really makes you listen.
The ruptures: Sir Andras plays the four sonatas tonight without an intermission. It’s maybe that, plus his structural ideas, played out in pauses between sections – between the major and the minor in the Haydn XVI:50 second movement, for example – that bring out how much disjunction there is in these late works from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. There are stops and starts, abrupt shifts of light and mood, halts in mid-air, plunges into the deep. It’s thrilling, and dramatic.
The Old Made New: Who hasn’t butchered the Mozart Sonata Facile, K. 545, (too easy for children and too difficult for artists, to paraphrase Schnabel) as a child? I hereby volunteer my name. Sir Andras renews the piece and restores it: charming ornaments, beautiful tempi, a soprano line that sings in the first movement, some of that misty pedaling in the slow movement, all the repeats. Lovely.
Back to the Future: Beethoven 109! Ahead of its time then, still making us listen hard now. The variations, in Sir Andras’s hands, are awesome, in the old sense of the word. Eventually, all the world – at least all the piano – seems to vibrate and hum, so much so that when the theme returns, quietly creeping back in, it sounds like silence. The last cadences are so perfectly timed, they bring tears to my eyes. Sir Andras holds the audience silent till the last string has quieted.
Stern Stuff: Life is made of it, and Schubert can be made of it, too. If the alternation of light and dark is a running theme in his works, in the last three sonatas, the currents are even deeper and stronger. In D. 958, the first of the last three, Sir Andras seems to hear less a cri de coeur than an admonition to us all about life’s struggles. You hear that in his handling of the second of the two chords in the opening theme (held down, rather than released in an exclamation), and in the handling of the last movement. The march of life is inexorable, in Sir Andras’s interpretation. It’s leavened by periods of sweetness, but don’t be fooled by the light periods, the happy skipping. Enjoy them, though, why not? It’s what buoys us. Until, we, like the music itself, wear down and out.
Small hall, quiet audience: Ann Arborites are not known for suppressing their coughs or stirrings. Rather the opposite, in fact. But Tuesday night, there was only a very occasional hack. I’m going to say that’s because Sir Andras’s playing, and the music itself, was so compelling. It was also a treat to hear a piano recital in Rackham, a relatively small hall at a little over 1,000 seats, rather than at giant, though acoustically satisfying Hill Auditorium. Closer, my piano god, to thee.
Bonus track: A preview of Thursday’s concert, with the exquisitely sorrowing and thundering Andantino of Schubert’s D. 959. A substantial encore after a substantial program. Didn’t Sir Andras once offer Bach’s entire Bach B-flat Partita as an encore here, or am I inventing that?