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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Concert Review: Rank Has Its Privileges

Sir András Schiff plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir András Schiff. Photo by Steve Bowbrick
© 2012, icensed through Wikimedia Commons.
Sir András Schiff is one of the most revered figures in contemporary pianism, an international touring and recording artist with a vast CD catalogue and a reputation for cerebral programs that engage the mind and the ear at the same time. A former citizen of Hungary and later Austria, he is now a British subject, knighted by the Queen of England last year, in recognition of his longstanding service and expertise in a vast repertory from Bach to Bartók.

On Tuesday night, the pianist offered the first of three planned Carnegie Hall recitals (the second is on Thursday, the third planned for next season) of The Last Sonatas, his new project focusing on the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, four composers who are, taken together the pillars of classical and early Romantic piano repertory. (The second concert in this series is on Thursday night, it ends with a recital on Oct. 30 of this year.)

This concert featured the antepenultimate (third-to-last) sonatas by these four composers, beginning with Haydn's perky C Major Sonata (Hob. XVI: 50.) Haydn was a universal musician, good at pretty much everything he set his hand to. This sonata was played with bright good humor and a skipping, youthful energy. Sir András' nimble fingers danced above the keyboard, interjecting bright upper register notes against taut left-hand rhythms.

The Sonata No. 30 in E Major by Beethoven was also precisely played, with a lovely singing tone and soft colors in the opening Vivace. But the sturm und drang of the central Prestissimo  did not emerge. The notes were there, but not the emotional fires that burn in the best performances of this dramatic movement. The final Andante was hushed and reverent in its descending, bell-like figures, sounding, if not quite ecclesiastical, then certainly meditative.

Mozart's C Major Sonata (K. 545) is a slam-dunk, a nine-minute tour through that composer's virtuosity that is so well-known to the general public that it never gets programmed anymore. Sir András made a case for this favorite work, playing its three movements with speed and Swiss-watch precision, but still finding the emotional truth in its central Andante. The giddy Rondo showed the influence of the earlier Haydn work, with its jump-rope figure for the right hand and playful variations.

Emotional truth and power emerged at last in the final work of the evening, Franz Peter Schubert's C minor Sonata. Sir András set up the opening argument efficiently, pitting stern, stentorian chords against a slow, singing second subject that seemed to float out of the keyboard. The pianist found new depths of yearning in the second movement, a profound and deeply felt Adagio anchored by black notes in the bass register.

The tiny Menuetto was the first glimmer of light in this performance, its three sections played with forward momentum and a sense that all is not lost. That feeling of hope was confirmed in the final movement, a Rondo that re-staged the argument from the opening movement, with the two themes meeting at last on egalitarian terms and establishing a final consensus.

Following the tumultuous applause, the pianist returned for three stellar encores: Schubert's Hungarian Melody in B minor, the Impromptu No. 2 in E flat Major and Beethoven's B minor Bagatelle, the choice of keys making these three works play together as a fascinating and coherent larger whole.

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