Tuesday, March 14, 2017

András Schiff’s Compelling Account of Schubert’s “Heavenly Length”

Whenever Paul Hersh would introduce the music of Franz Schubert at a concert given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he would usually cite how Robert Schumann had referred to that composer’s “heavenly length.” (Igor Stravinsky apparently had his own variation on this epithet. He is said to have observed that he would always fall asleep when Schubert’s music was played, but then he would awake and find himself in heaven!)

Schubert was certainly not the first to have pushed the bounds of acceptable duration. Many of Ludwig van Beethoven’s compositions towards the end of his life did the same, and there is a good chance that Beethoven’s venture into this new space served to inspire Schubert. Schubert may thus be seen as a critical link between Beethoven and the ambitious explorations into even longer durations in a genre other than opera that arose towards the end of the nineteenth century with both the glacial (but emotionally intense) pace of Anton Bruckner and the almost narrative dramatic qualities of Gustav Mahler.

The Schubert-Beethoven connection was particularly evident during pianist András Schiff’s last visits to Davies Symphony Hall, a three-concert series exploring the last three piano sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, as well as Beethoven and Schubert, which he presented between the fall of 2014 and the fall of 2015. All three of the Schubert sonatas were bold moves on the playing field of extended duration, which makes it all the more remarkable that they were all composed in the month of September of 1828, only a few month’s before the composer’s death. However, those three sonatas had predecessors that were just as ambitious; and those predecessors constituted the core of Schiff’s latest recital program, which he brought to Davies last night, once again under the joint auspices of the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances.

The program was framed by two of the preceding sonatas, beginning with D. 845 in A minor and concluding with D. 894 in G major. Between the two of them, the attentive listener could detect those seeds that would eventually flower into the approaches taken by both Bruckner and Mahler. D. 845 is an outstanding example of “drama without narrative,” particularly by virtue of how Schubert manages abrupt changes of mood so deftly. On the other hand there is a stillness to the opening movement of D. 894 that clearly anticipates those long stretches of minimal activity that one would later encounter in Bruckner symphonies.

Schiff was equally at home with both of these rhetorical stances. He has a gift for making every moment signify while, at the same time, maintaining a pace attentive to “subjective temporality,” the idea that the mind’s passing of time does not always align with the clock’s. Furthermore, in both sonatas he always displayed an acute sense of where signification was at its most intense. In D. 894 he was particularly attentive to the middle section in the final movement, which takes the opening theme of the third movement and carries it off in an entirely different (but just as exciting) direction.

These two sonatas provided enough to make for an abundantly satisfying program entirely unto themselves. However, Schiff himself is not one to shy away from “heavenly length.” As a result, the two sonatas were separated by two sets of impromptus, one on either side of the intermission. The first of these was the D. 935 set of four, composed almost exactly one year prior to Schubert’s death. The second was the D. 946 set of three composed in May of 1828 but not published until forty years later under the title Drei Clavierstücke. However, Otto Erich Deutsch lists them as impromptus in his thematic catalog; and they are definitely cut from the same cloth as D. 935 and its predecessor, the D. 899 set of four.

All seven of these pieces tend to be regarded as “short.” However, given the context in which they were played, Schiff presented them in a manner through which the attentive listener could appreciate Schubert’s prodigious capacity for prolongation, even when “clock time” was significantly less than it was for the sonatas. The label “impromptu” suggests a rhetoric of spontaneity; but the spontaneity may be likened to the immediacy of sighting a particularly beautiful flower in a vast field and then lingering over it to take in every detail of its appearance and scent. Schiff discovered no end of extraordinary flowers in his journey through these pieces, but he wanted to make sure that we would be able to linger more than a bit over each of them.

I have now been to enough Schiff recitals that I know that as much thought goes into his selection of encores as is applied to the program itself. Last night was no exception. The first of the two encores turned to the second of the D. 899 impromptus, as if to make sure that this collection was not entirely ignored. He then concluded with the briefest selection of the evening, a piece given the title “Ungarische Melodie” (Hungarian melody) in B minor (D. 817). Even this selection had its place in the grand scheme of things, since, on Schiff’s two-CD ECM New Series album, he used D. 817 as an “overture” for his performance of the D. 894 piano sonata!

This made for a lot of music. For those unwilling to let go of clock time, the entire evening (including the encores) filled almost exactly three hours. There were signs that some of the weaker souls left at the intermission. However, I am one of the many that remained with an insatiable appetite for what Schiff had to offer not only through his interpretations but also through his overall approach to planning his programs. Evenings with Schiff continue to be consistently satisfying, always leaving me wondering what the next one will be.

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