By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, February 20, 2016)
Thursday evening, Sir Andras Schiff returned to the Bosendorfer piano and the Rackham Auditorium stage for the second remarkable installment of his “Three Last Sonatas” project. Middle children – rather astounding ones – got their chance in the limelight.
It’s Saturday morning as I write this – Friday just escaped me – and his last concert of last sonatas is coming up this evening. So just a few words before tonight’s final program, in which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert bid adieu to sonata form. (Remember, there are later Beethoven solo piano works – give a listen to the ultimate solo piano Bagatelles, Op. 126.)
First, as I alluded to in writing about Tuesday’s program, it’s a privilege to hear these works in such short, concentrated order, rather than spread out over a season or two – which has been the case elsewhere. The connections are clearer, and Thursday, Sir Andras again furthered a view of these concerts as a serialized trilogy with an encore of “scenes” from the next show (in this case, the sublime second movement of the last Schubert sonata).
Second, Thursday’s concert, once again in the “intimate” setting of Rackham Auditorium – tonight we are in the big hall, Hill Auditorium, more than 3,000 seats – was remarkable for the intimacy of tone of Sir Andras’s playing. There was a sweetness, an unforced, speaking-voice quality to the playing throughout. I kept looking to see if his left foot was on the una corda pedal – not so much because that pedal quiets the piano down but because of the round, dulcifying change in color it can produce. But no, this was a case of fingers, hands – and musical mind – at work. It was lovely, and gentle and unexpected in works that can be more forcefully declarative – even, for example, the opening Mozart B-flat sonata, K. 570.
Third and last (unless something more occurs to me that I can fit in now), it strikes me that on Thursday, and Tuesday, too, Sir Andras was rather committed to moving ahead at a steady pace in these works. True, he has occasionally marked the pauses between sections with a potent fermata to emphasize a musical shift of ideas or tonality. Overall, however, there’s been little rubato in the playing of these works, no dawdling as tour guide to point out a landmark, a great view, or the scent of those proverbial roses we’re supposed to stop to smell. This is not a criticism, just an observation. His methods may be other, devolving from the music’s internal workings: Think how often one notices inner harmonies, the bass line, or what that great supporting actor, the left hand, is doing when he plays.
OK, one more thing: I probably can’t hear the second movement of the last Schubert sonata too many times, and Sir Andras will have given us two opportunities this week, with his Thursday sneak preview and tonight’s full reading of the Schubert D. 960. His Thursday rendering of the andante sostenuto was relatively brisk but no less replete with meaning for his choice of tempo. I heard things I wasn’t aware of before – how Schubert eliminates things in the reprise of the A Section, for example – that had escaped me before. Life, like the music, itself, pares itself down as we, and it, reach our respective endings.