Sir András Schiff is traversing the final three piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in concerts across America and Europe. Twelve sonatas in total are spread across three concerts which celebrate the sonata form, “one of the greatest inventions in Western music” (András Schiff), a structure central to the oeuvres of all four composers and a means by which we can observe their development at key stages in their creative lives.
The triptych of concerts also explores the notion of “late style”. In considering Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. Haydn and Beethoven were long-lived (by the standards of their day), while Mozart and Schubert died young. But it is the intensity of their lives and creativity that matters here: for example, in the last year of his life, Schubert’s output was astonishing – the Symphony and string quartets in C major, the “Schwanengesang” song cycle and many other works in addition to the three final piano sonatas. Haydn, meanwhile, composed his final three piano sonatas in London in the mid-1790s, taking advantage of the new English pianos he found there to experiment with sound and articulation, and then lived a further busy 15 years. Thus, each sonata represents something different musically and in each composer’s life, while offering intriguing glimpses of where the composer might have gone next. In the case of Schubert in particular, one has the sense of a composer poised on the brink of new discoveries, and the Sonata in A, D959, is less fatalistic last words, more an affirmation of life. Mozart’s good-natured and elegant Sonata K570 is music at ease with itself, yet remarkable for its expert handling of counterpoint and simplicity of proportion. The serene, hymnlike opening melody of Beethoven’s Opus 110 heralds a movement of exceptional calmness which ensures that the music does not detract from the intensity which follows. The last movement’s fugue, that most stable of musical devices, grows from the tragic Arioso to create a finale that rings out as a joyful paean to life.
For these concerts, Schiff eschewed the usual Steinway model D grand piano and instead selected a Bösendorfer 280VC, a new model designed, so the programme notes informed us, to combine the quintessence of the make (a singing tone, a rich bass) with a “lively” treble and reliable mechanics. Bösendorfer pianos are still made in Vienna, home to all four composers in the programme, though the make would have been unknown to them as it was not established until 1828, the year Schubert died. In the programme notes, András Schiff describes the Bösendorfer as “ideally suited to the music of Viennese classics”, and it was certainly refreshing to hear a piano other than a Steinway, though at times the treble seemed too strident.
The programme was played without an interval, presumably to allow the audience to fully appreciate the connections, similarities and differences between these composers and their works.
It was a test of stamina of both pianist and audience and I’m not sure that the lack of a break truly added to the meaning or profundity of the concert. In fact an interval might have been an opportunity to pause and reflect.
Schiff’s stage presence is calm, poised and largely free of gestures except those which serve the music. This has the dual effect of creating incredible intensity and intimacy but also a rather glacial quality which can be off-putting. His playing is careful, highly considered and reverential: every note, every nuance, every tempo, every dynamic gradation meticulously thought through almost to the point of obsessiveness. This leads to a sound which is both wonderful and also slightly unnatural, with a certain loss of spontaneity (the Scherzo of the Opus 110 seemed rather foursquare, for example). He is curiously fascinating, yet strangely uninspiring. There are no rough edges in his playing, he floats his pianissimos out of the instrument, his phrasing is eloquent, his pedaling tasteful, but for me the impact was somewhat elusive and at times almost cloying.
An expansive tempo in the opening movement of the Schubert resulted in some longeurs which robbed the music of its nobility and warmth. But the Scherzo was not the usual gallop some pianists tend towards, and as a result it felt closer to an eighteenth century minuet and trio, and all the more charming for it. The most successful works were in fact the shortest: the Mozart was genial, spacious yet intimate, with few storms to disturb its good nature and some piquant dialogue between the hands. The Haydn was a fleeting six minutes of wit and bonhomie. The reverence paid to the opening movement of the Beethoven was such that the music felt overly restrained and at times threatened to sink into a torpor long before the composer intends this atmosphere in the Arioso.
The Bach which András Schiff played for an encore, brilliant in its elegant simplicity, was as refreshing as a glass of iced water after a slice of rich Sachertorte.
This review was first published on Bachtrack.com