Support independent arts journalism by joining our Patreon! Currently $5/month.

About Superconductor

Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Concert Review: A Meeting of Kindred Spirits

Sir András Schiff pairs Schumann and Janáček at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir András Schiff. Photo by Paul Schiffli for the Lucerne Festival.
"You have to understand that the two composers on this program have absolutely nothing to do with each other."

This remark, met with laughter from a packed Carnegie Hall, was delivered by the Hungarian pianist Sir András Schiff as part of a short lecture that he gave before the second half of Thursday night's piano recital. The concert consisted of four works, two by Robert Schumann and two by Leoš Janáček. Sir András pointed out that Janáček was only six years old when Schumann died in Bonn, Germany, and that while one of these men was raised in the German musical tradition, the other was completely self-taught.

However, this concert, with its two halves each devoted to one major work from each of these men, was a probing exploration of the idea of music made by composers whose greatest common bonds might be a love of great literature and a flagrant disregard for the rules of  so-called "classical" pianism. Mr. Schiff spoke of Janáček's fascination with the Moravian dialect of the Czech language, and how themes in "On an Overgrown Path" were based on the rhythm of common expressions. He also mentioned Schumann's love of literature: particularly the romantic novelist Jean-Paul who is all but forgotten today and only occasionally translated into English.

The concert started with Book One of On an Overgrown Path, a collection of short piano leaves with vivid titles. Sir András seemed to relish laying these unfamiliar pieces before the audience, playing their pulsing harmonies and vivid, angular melodies, drawn from the vernacular of Janáček's world. "Unutterable Anguish" started with a stuttering, sobbing figure, delicately played that seemed to speed and slow with the force of breaking waves of emotion. "In Tears" followed, gentle raindrops of pain that fell with increasing force and pitch. "The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away" was written around an uncertain, unresolved figure that skittered up the keyboard as if it would lift off at any second, taking the listener with it.

Next came Schumann's Davidsbündlertanze, a similar-and-yet-different series of short piano works. This cycle is a kind of debate between "Florestan" and "Eusebius", the two halves of Schumann's mind. These were alter egos that the composer would use to reflect masculine ambition and dreamy, sighing passion. Sir Ándras played these works attacca, shifting moods and taking the listener on a dancing roller-coaster ride through the composer's divided mind.

In his lecture, Sir András pointed out that Janáček's first piano sonata, (Sonata 1.X.1905, also nicknamed "From the Street") was written in memoriam of Czech students who were shot by Austro-Hungarian police. Their peaceful protest, urging the foundation of a Czech-language university in the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire, was met with authoritarian bullets on October 1, 1905. In two movements ("The Premonition" and "Death") this sonata was dominated by a rat-a-tat figure in the right hand, a leitmotif of bullets punching into flesh. The performance delved deep into the grief and madness of the situation, a somber reflection that today, little in the world seems to have changed.

He followed this with the biggest challenge of the evening: the marathon Sonata No. 1 by Schumann. A work that cheerfully burns the rule-book of the 19th century piano sonata, this is a sprawling experiment, thirty minutes of melded musical ideas that forces the artist and audience to navigate with barely a chart. Sir András sailed his little Bosendorfer ship around the rocky shoals, finally bringing the listener into a safe harbor with a triumphant tonal resolution.

Once the applause had quieted, he picked up the microphone again. "Now," he said, "I will play a proper sonata, but I will stay in the key of F sharp minor." This was Beethoven: the Sonata No. 24 "à Thérèse". Its two movements and tight structure make it appealing as an ambitious encore. Sir András' taut and flowing performance drew the emotional appeal from the music right to the listener's soft place. He followed with one  last bit of Schumann, the dancing "Fröhlicher Landmann" ("Happy Farmer") a sweet bit of country-fried rusticity that ends on a tiny question mark.

If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's href
="">Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City at the low cost of just $5/month.<br />

Trending on Superconductor


Share My Blog!

Share |

Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats