Top Ear

András Schiff Live at the Concertgebouw

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Jeremy Lee writes

This intelligently-programmed, tasteful recital was performed on the 4th of December 1994, in the prestigious Het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and partly because of that hall’s gorgeous acoustics, this disc is quite well-recorded.  The uniquely-shaded tone of Schiff’s Bösendorfer is also very well presented, and of course this type of piano aids Schiff’s jeu perle neatly.

Yes, that jeu perle is exactly what makes the first item in the recital, Handel’s Suite No. 1 in B Flat Major, so appealing.  If you’re familiar with Schiff’s Bach or Mozart, you know what to expect here:  charm, clarity and neatness.  The second number, Brahms’ Handel Variations, Op. 24, has its theme taken from the aria in the aforementioned Suite, but since the Suite ends surprisingly in the minor (G minor), Schiff plays the two works attaca, so that the second appearance of the aria in the Suite coincides with the theme of the Brahms Variations, which to me is completely genius.  Schiff Handels (excuse the pun) the Brahms Variations very well no matter technically or stylistically, mixing Baroque stateliness and Brahmsian splendor and fire in perfect proportions.  If you want a more extravagantly Brahmsian approach, there’s always Katchen on Decca, but Schiff balances the two faces of this piece nicely.  The concluding fugue builds up clearly and excitingly.

Sticking to the Variation and Fugue theme (programming genius, again), we are presented with one of the most unjustly neglected piano works ever written:  Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J. S. Bach, Op. 81.  Reger takes his tune from the duet for contralto and tenor “Seine Allmacht zu ergründen, wird sich kein Mensche finden” (“No man can fathom His omnipotence”) from the cantata No. 128, Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein.  Under Reger’s pen, this heavenly aria is transformed into a deeply spiritual and probing set of variations, conveying amongst all the feeling of passive suffering (as the key of B minor may suggest), culminating in a colossal, climactic fugue.  Both Leonard and I agree that this work is one of the most excruciating works to be heard in one go due to its weight and complexity, but we also agree that the experience is greatly cathartic.  Needless to say, this work presents a plethora of technical and musical hurdles for the performer, be it structure, clarity, linearity or contrapuntal facility, and to date only two famous names (besides Schiff) have performed this work:  Rudolf Serkin and Marc-André Hamelin (no prizes guessing which one I was most familiar with prior to hearing Schiff’s).

At any rate, you have to hand it to Schiff for tackling this work at all, and presenting it in such an important concert.  Schiff brings his typical brand of style and clarity to the piece, an approach that has the effect of putting a huge architecture behind a concave lens.  The “image size”–the proportions of the work as presented to the listener–is far smaller than the “object size”–the actual galactic proportions of the work.  In other words, it sounds smaller than it should be, which also means that it is quite wanting in heft when needed, particularly the very conclusion, which just sounds loud without being heavy.  This is probably because of Schiff’s small sonority.  I also doubt that the Bösendorfer helped the situation because, apart from the low B being I suspect out of tune, the bass notes are not as sonorous as a Steinway’s and I think if Schiff switched to a Steinway instead it would sound less anemic.  Accordingly, the vast emotional canvas is diminished as well, which detracts from this deep and philosophical work.  (Hamelin’s enormous sonority and Steinway, on the other hand, puts this work under a magnifying glass.)  Besides this there’s the rather cautious speed he paces the faster and more demanding variations, particularly the finger-busting sixth variation and the toccata-like tenth variation, both of which are taken by the scruff of the neck and shaken under Hamelin.

The reservations about the Reger aside, one can’t deny the craftsmanship and aristocracy Schiff brings to this recital, and the applause at the very end is well deserved.  And as I’ve said time and again, the programming is exemplary.  Recommended.

Details

  • Album name:  András Schiff Live at the Concertgebouw
  • Performers:  András Schiff (piano)
  • Label:  Teldec 4509-99051-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  71:21
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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