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András Schiff's Insights Into Brahms

April 16, 2018

San Francisco Performances

The Hungarian pianist András Schiff, whose regular visits to Davies Hall have become singular fusions of technical mastery, penetrating artistry, and musical intelligence, played the first of two programs Sunday, April 15 to a keenly attentive and warmly appreciative crowd. The centerpiece this time was Brahms, with Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76 positioned just before intermission and Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 right after. More Brahms was on tap for the Tuesday recital, with the Op. 117 Intermezzos and Piano Pieces Op. 118 and 119 structuring the bill.

Where previous Schiff outings have focused on a single composer (Bach) or an idea (the last sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert), these April performances, jointly presented by San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony, folded Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, and Mozart into the mix.

Not that there was anything remotely casual or catch-all about the programming. Schiff, who is at once intellectually uncompromising and serenely composed onstage, conceives and executes each recital with clear-eyed attention. Pieces are selected and juxtaposed to suggest connections, whether by key relationships and/or interpretive congruencies and contrasts.

The Mendelssohn Fantasy in F-sharp Minor that opened Sunday’s performance was immediately followed by the Beethoven Sonata No. 24, in the parallel key of F-sharp major. Later on, in a D-minor link, a Brahms Capriccio, at once lucid and angular in Schiff’s hands, fed into the precise and propulsive clarity of the Prelude that opens Bach’s English Suite No. 6. Schiff, who wastes no time between pieces and leaves the stage only at intermission and during the curtain calls, all but insists a listener follow his tightly wrought lines of thought. It’s a seriously exhilarating experience.

With the two Brahms sets waiting in the wings, Schiff got things off to a scintillating start Sunday, with a colorful and chiaroscuro reading of the Mendelssohn Fantasy. Originally titled Sonate écossaie, this delightful, Scottish-inflected three-movement work has both the lyrical charm of the composer’s Songs Without Words and a driving, showy dynamism. Schiff encompassed it all, with poignancy, dramatically chiming low notes, passages of gentle delicacy, and heady outbursts.

Here and throughout the evening, he demonstrated an almost uncanny transparency and cohesion between his left and right hands. Inner voices became explicit and equal with the dominant subjects and themes. The Bösendorfer instrument he plays, with a somewhat mellower sound than that of a Steinway, suits him perfectly. It was a nice touch that the piano was positioned slightly askew rather than squared up to the audience. That lent an air of confiding intimacy to the otherwise reserved, even austere Schiff demeanor.

The Beethoven sonata varied assertiveness with light-fingered restraint. The pianist’s flair for dynamic contrasts and sharply etched phrasing was on full display. A certain playfulness, which the piece invites in spots, was left to the listener’s imagination. Schiff can change the weather from stormy to sunny inside a measure, but the lighter climate of humor comes sparingly.

With 15 short Brahms pieces framing the intermission, Schiff assembled a series of shining miniatures. The opening Capriccio (another F-sharp minor link) balanced thunderous attacks with the wistful trailing notes of a right-hand figure. One intermezzo got an expansive and revealing stretching of tempos. Another was delivered with arresting, thickly impastoed chords. And so it went, in contrasting moods and modes.

Inevitably, perhaps, some of the pieces registered more successfully than others. The breathy phrasing in the E-minor Intermezzo of Op. 116 was a small revelation, a recasting of the familiar in new light. The E-major Intermezzo that followed came off as a kind of private meditation, drawing the listener into some interior space carved out between composer and pianist. At other times, a Capriccio darkly drawn in clotted chords or the heavily unyielding texture of another Op. 116 Intermezzo, a certain foreboding steeliness took hold.

Schiff closed the evening with a ravishment of Bach. From the Prelude, which he unfurled like a single, unbroken thought, through the delicately probing Allemande and Courante to a buoyant Gavotte and perpetual motion Gigue, this was pianism of a very high order. As if that weren’t enough, Schiff played the composer’s Italian Concerto, in two sections, as a sparkling and diamond-etched encore.

As this remarkable recital approached two-and-a-half hours, it almost seemed that Schiff was just getting started. Bach, as much as anything he plays, seems inexhaustible in his hands.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.