|Andras Schiff. Photo by Sheila Rock.
Often with solo recital concerts there's not a lot in the end about which one can really comment. A performer shows up, gives his or her interpretation of a piece, and unless something goes wrong, or one wants to make a pedantic case for how well something was (or wasn't) played, and one either likes it or not based on whatever preferences and experiences one brings when walking in the door. Of course there are some performers who lend themselves to ridicule or praise based on something other than what was actually heard, but it's not the norm.
To some extent that's my response to Andras Schiff's recital last Wednesday nightat Zellerbach Hall, where the pianist performed an extraordinary concert of works by Bach, Beethoven and Bartok (a variation of the three Bs I'd like to see replace the more traditional version, to be sure). Schiff's outspokenness on matters both political and musical is something I admire, but it doesn't have anything to do with his musical ability, except in how the latter influences his choice of repertoire (he's a very strict classicist). To put it simply, one couldn't have asked for a more consummate musical experience.
The program began with all fifteen of Bach's Three Part Inventions (Sinfonias), "straightforward instructional pieces whereby lovers of the keyboard, and especially those eager to learn, are shown a clear method..." Schiff certainly has the method down, and as in so much Bach the pleasure is to be found in the precision, not the heart, of the execution. Schiff gave each Sinfonia a precise reading which never reached any moment of either high or low intensity, but then again there isn't any such thing written into these works- it's kind of like listening to Joe Satriani play the guitar. Fine technique, but no soul. Fine, if you like such things, but I for one don't. Besides, Bach just sounds weird when played on a contemporary grand piano.
However, Schiff is capable of performing with strong passion, highly evident in what came next, Bartok's sole Piano Sonata, of which Schiff gave an explosive performance culminating in a thunderous conclusion of the last movement. The composer's interest in folk music and the work of his contemporaries riddles the piece, which looked fiendishly difficult to play as Schiff's fingers were a blur during many moments of the outer movements.
During the intermission, I ran into Rosine Stoltz and introduced her to Isabella. Rosine had just had a conversation with someone else where she revealed she had never heard all fifteen of the Sinfonias performed together, to which her interlocutor replied that there were ample opportunities to experience such a thing via recording. Her response, "Yes, of course, but why would you?" reminded me of why I've adored her for so long.
The second half of the concert was Beethoven's Diabelli Variations- a daunting piece to perform live if there ever was one and I marveled at Schiff's ability to play not only this work, but the entire concert from memory. His performance of the Beethoven was deeply informed and yet pleasingly, never showy. The thirty-three variations encompass almost everything we know about Beethoven- from his jocular humor to his inimitable ability to capture something fundamental about the human experience in musical form, and everything in-between. An hour later, when it was over, there was a sense of having taken a long musical journey led by an expert guide.
Schiff returned for two encores. The first was Beethoven's fourth Bagatelle, which surprisingly found him turning up the intensity of execution even more than we had just witnessed- as if having scaled the mountain he now wanted to take in the expansive view. He followed this with Bartok's Allegro Barbaro, played with equal enthusiasm.
An interesting pedagogical aside, all three of these pieces were written nearly a hundred years apart, and it would have been great to hear them performed in chronological order instead of one that fit the standard concert format of two roughly equal halves separated by an intermission. No doubt by design, when I learned Schiff was to give an instructional lecture in a Music 101 class the next day on the Berkeley campus, I deeply wished I could skip work to attend it so I could hear his insights on how these works form an arc in composition and performance for piano.