Concert Review: Sir András Schiff — A Night to Remember

By Susan Miron

The pianist provided a 150-minute long procession of anecdotes, thoughts, and absolutely first-class playing for his adoring, thoroughly attentive audience, who happily bought tickets to hear whatever Sir András Schiff chose to play.

Sir András Schiff at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Friday night at a sold-out Jordan Hall. It was Sir András Schiff’s first solo appearance on Celebrity Series since 2016, and it was a concert to remember. (Arts Fuse review of Schiff’s 2016 Celebrity Series performance.) On this occasion, the pianist provided a 150-minute long procession of anecdotes, thoughts, and absolutely first-class playing for his adoring, thoroughly attentive audience, who happily bought tickets for whatever Schiff chose to play.

Schiff’s worldwide fan base have followed him through his frequent performances and recordings of all of Bach’s keyboard works as well as all the Beethoven piano sonatas, as well as close to all the piano works of Bartok, Schubert, Schumann, and Janáček.

Then there was that unforgettable evening of gigantic Variations — Bach’s Goldbergs and Beethoven Diabellis, the myriad recordings, and his growing career as a conductor and musical thinker and philosopher. Billed as ‘Bach’s Most Distinguished Ambassador,’ he has spoken about his idol, “the greatest composer of all time.” For decades he has had all of Bach ready to play, memorized, at the drop of a hat.

Schiff has been acknowledged as a brilliant interpreter of German Romantic piano repertoire. A charming raconteur and renowned lecturer, he has recently decided that — rather than plan programs two or three years in advance — to announce his selections from the stage. The approach adds considerable intimacy to his appearances, particularly given his thoughtful introductions to the pieces in the lineup.

Much of Schiff’s program this evening featured music associated with, or written in, Leipzig. He began his epic two hour and 30 minute recital by simply walking to the piano, sitting down, and playing the famous opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations. Because there was no printed program, many of us who love the ever-popular Goldbergs were comfortably settling in for a 40-minute piece … until Schiff stood up and advised us not to worry. “I won’t play all of it tonight.” Speaking in his customarily quiet, poised manner he shared a few thoughts on how hard it is to make music in this extraordinarily fraught time, and how “life is too short for not-very-good music.” Then he plunged into Bach’s very familiar Italian Concerto and played it to perfection.

After this, Schiff turned to the rarely played Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David), Op. 6, a group of eighteen pieces for piano composed in 1837 by Robert Schumann, who named the piece after his music society, Davidsbündler. (On YouTube). A lifelong admirer of Schumannn, I was surprised that I had never heard this work performed live before. Schiff’s introduction to this half-hour piece emphasized its deft theatricality. These nuanced pieces are not really dances, but enchanting discussions, musical dialogues representing the perspectives of two fantasy figures, Florestan and Eusebius, who represent opposing sides of Schumann’s complicated personality. Each ‘dance’ is ascribed to one or both of the dueling aspects of the composer’s ego. Sir András provided an eye-opening introduction to see-sawing composition. The Davidsbündlertänze‘s major theme is based on a mazurka by Clara Wieck, Schumann’s future bride. In 1838, the composer told Clara that the ‘dances’ contained “many wedding thoughts” and that “the story is an entire Polterabend (German wedding eve party, during which old crockery is smashed to bring good luck).” Schiff has clearly lived deeply in the world of Schumann’s fantasy life and delivered a captivating performance.

We were welcomed into the second half of Schiff’s program at a point when many piano recitals would have already been winding up. First up, there was a magisterial performance of Bach’s delicious and justly famous Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I don’t remember sitting with a quieter, more determinedly rapt audience. Then Sir András introduced Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses (1841), reminding us that the composer helped revive Bach’s reputation with his 1829 performance of St. Matthew Passion Berlin. “You can only admire Mendelssohn … Listen to this like a requiem,” he mused. This was my first encounter with this passionate and dramatic piece, which, oddly, is showing up again on Daniil Trifonov’s program this coming Wednesday.

“One of the great masterpieces of all time” Schiff quipped about Beethoven’s much-loved Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op.31/2”The Tempest.” (Schiff has a superb lecture-recital on this sonata from about 20 years ago in London’s Wigmore Hall. There is also a performance in Japan from 2008.) I was held almost breathless during this thrilling “Tempest,” which was played passionately and dramatically.

The hour was late, but Sir András treated us to two Mozart encores, starting off with an uncharacteristic (for Mozart) Gigue in G Major, K. 574, then music everyone knew — the Allegro from the first movement of Sonata Facile (in C Major, k 545). You can hear Sir András play these two charmers, like most of the works on this program, on YouTube. But, if the precious opportunity comes along for you to hear him live, seize it.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for the Arts Fuse and the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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