Last Sonatas, Final Words

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Feb. 23, 2016)

It’s the Tuesday after the last of Sir Andras Schiff’s “Last Sonatas” concerts – the final one was at Hill Auditorium Saturday evening — and I have a hangover.

More precisely, I have a ceaseless rotation of snippets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert playing in my head. The alternately whirling and grave scherzo from Schubert D. 960 gives way to the consoling radiance of the Arietta of Beethoven Op. 111. The wit and merriment of Haydn Hob. XVI:52 –and the final bristling burr of the left hand accompaniment – cede to the little bee-sting kisses of the Allegretto of Mozart K. 576. It’s all great, and though it’s an endless soundtrack, playing all night long, it has the virtue of having replaced my last earworm – the Andante from Schubert’s Grand Duo sonata for piano four hands (D. 812), which has been boring into my brain for weeks on end.

These three concerts by Sir Andras, presented under University Musical Society auspices and offered – lucky us! – within a week’s time — were simply extraordinary. In advance, there was the allure of the musical riches contained in these last sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. In retrospect, there is also Sir Andras’s playing, which was, as the French might say in praise, impeccable: exquisite in fit, clarity, tone and dynamics and consideration of detail.

Though the final concert contained Beethoven Op. 111 and Schubert D. 960 – ultimate diamonds in the crown of each composer’s final three sonatas – it was not, for me, the most moving of the concerts. I might chalk that up to Hill Auditorium, which while acoustically superb, is just about three times the size of Rackham Auditorium, site of the first two concerts in the series. Schiff’s playing spoke no less brilliantly in Hill than Rackham, but the intimacy of contact with the music was less.

No less striking Saturday than in previous concerts, though, was Sir Andras’s eloquence with the bass line and inner voices (particularly those in the left hand), which gave such definition, structure and texture to his playing. He had the stentorian power of the Bosendorfer instrument at his disposal, and he made generous and pronounced use of it. (And while we are on pianos, a digression on piano placement: I’m sure I wasn’t alone to notice the unusual, sharp, upstage angling of the piano’s tail; fascinating to think how this affected our acoustic impressions, perhaps by altering the way the sound waves bounced and traveled.)

One suspects, though, that Sir Andras would exploit the bass of any instrument at his disposal, at least in this repertoire. And like the composers on the program, he is masterful in exploiting register. I also think his long experience with J.S. Bach’s music surely influenced his keen reading of counterpoint and counter-melodies in the last sonatas on the programs.

If these qualities in Sir Andras’s playing were key to the vitality of his interpretations, I think they were also key to my disappointment with his performance of the last Schubert sonata, which was rich in pointillistic detail directed at local events. I think that made me feel somehow outside this enormously profound music, so touching and consoling as it evokes the joy of being alive, the struggle to accept life’s brevity, the serenity to be found as the door to the hereafter opens. I was highly interested and admiring rather than affected.

But these were revelatory concerts, ones that will stick with the lucky concertgoers, I think, for a long time. I’m so grateful to have heard them and to have those Schiff earworms coursing through my head. If you’ve got one you can’t identify, it could be Saturday’s limpid encore: Mozart’s Adagio in C Major, K. 356/617a (for glass harmonica).

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