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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Concert Review: Attack of the Killer B's

András Schiff at Carnegie Hall
Marathon man: András Schiff played Bach, Bartók and Beethoven at Carnegie Hall.
Photo © 2010 ECM Classics.
In New York City, Halloween is a night when kids put on silly costumes and parade door-to-door under careful parental supervision. Older kids hide in the bushes and "bomb" each other with eggs and shaving cream. Overgrown kids gather on Sixth Avenue and parade down it in a big, gaudy Halloween parade through Greenwich Village.

The Hungarian pianist András Schiff did none of those things last night. But he did offer a carefully planned program of Bach, Bartók and Beethoven as part of his Carnegie Hall Perspectives series. The marathon recital was designed to demonstrate the musicological connections between these three composers.

The concert opened with Bach's Three-Part Inventions, exercises for the keyboard meant to teach Bach's pupils (including his children) the art of writing fugues. These pieces move in a tonal cycle, exploring different aspects of the various keys. Mr. Schiff displayed a gentle, smooth touch, playing the complex phrases with very little pedal.

The pianist unleashed his full fury on the Piano Sonata by Bela Bartók. Mr. Schiff's countryman is at the center of the Perspectives series this season, and this performance presented a good argument for his lone Sonata. Echoes of modern Russian music can be heard here as well, the unforgiving rhythms of The Rite of Spring and the steely pianism of Serge Prokofiev.  

Mr. Schiff dug into the difficult opening movement, playing the staccato figures with tenacity and guts. The second movement was more eloquent, almost singing as it moved through its slow passage. The third was a manic dance of fingers upon the keys, a stirring example of the composer's characteristic folk-inspired rhythms. 

The presence of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on a recital program is an anachronism. This set of 33 variations on a waltz by an Italian publisher was not conceived as "recital music." Beethoven, asked in 1819 to write one simple variation, pounded out 33, finishing them in 1823. Why? It wasn't to give them in recital. At this point, Beethoven was too deaf to play in public, and the solo piano recital (as we know it) would not be invented (by Liszt) until 1839. 

Never mind. Beethoven summed up everything he knew about piano playing in these pages, barely changing keys as he . Almost all of the first 28 are in C major, from the stately Andante to a galloping Allegro. He tips the hat to Bach (No. 24 and 32) and Mozart, (No. 22) when the reconfigured waltz transforms into a version of "Notte e giorno faticar" from Don Giovanni.  The last four movements shift keys to the minor, leading to a heaven-storming fugue. 

Mr. Schiff approached most of the variations as individual pieces, although he did let certain ones flow into each other when it seemed fitting. Listening to a record of any pianist  play this cycle straight through forces the listener to exercise both patience and concentration. Seeing the Diabelli Variations played live, by an artist of Mr. Schiff's caliber, is nothing short of a miracle.

For his encore, Mr. Schiff treated the audience to another major work: Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30. One of the composer's last, it is itself equipped with a mighty set of variations in the final movement. With exquisite playing, Mr. Schiff held the audience rapt.

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