Pianist András Schiff (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Once again pianist András Schiff is concluding his tour of North America with a visit to San Francisco. Last night in Davies Symphony Hall he gave the first of two recitals being presented jointly by San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony as part of the Great Performers Series. As I have already observed, both of these recitals would provide my first opportunity to listen to Schiff perform his interpretations of the music of Johannes Brahms.
Early in his career, Brahms sought to make a name for himself as a pianist capable of mastering prodigiously difficult compositions, even if he had to write those compositions himself. His Opus 1 is the first of the three piano sonatas he wrote, all composed in 1853 and each monstrously challenging in its own way. The same could be said of subsequent ventures into variations on a theme, particularly when the theme was that of George Frideric Handel. Brahms’ Opus 24, composed in 1861, capped off 25 finger-busting variations with what may be the ultimate fugue to have been delivered with nineteenth-century rhetoric. This was followed two years later by two books of variations on the theme on which Niccolò Paganini had composed his own variations in the last of his 24 caprices for solo violin.
Some fifteen years later Brahms’ reputation had been solidly established. In 1878 he returned to writing solo piano music. However, he was now content to work on much briefer durational scales; and he published his efforts as collections of short pieces. Six of these were published between 1878 and 1893. Last night Schiff played the first two of these; and, at his second recital this coming Tuesday, he will play the final three. (The second was the smallest collection, the Opus 76 consisting of only two rhapsodies.)
Most of these pieces were given the title “Intermezzo;” and “Capriccio” was the second most-used title. The “Rhapsody” label occurs at the end of the final (Opus 119) collection. The very first set, Opus 76, was published as two books of four pieces each.
It is unclear that Brahms ever intended any of these collections to be performed as a single set. (For that matter, it is unclear if he intended his two books of Paganini variations to be performed back-to-back.) Many pianists will pick and choose across multiple collections when preparing a “Brahms section” for a recital. (Scott Foglesong did this for his program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this past January.) However, Schiff tends to take a systematic approach to the programs he prepares. Last night all eight of the Opus 76 pieces were played before the intermission, which was then followed by the seven Opus 116 pieces.
From a technical point of view, Schiff brought the same clarity of execution that he has served up consistently in his many visits to Davies. (In my personal experience, that goes all the way back to the series of concerts over the course of two seasons when he played all of the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Indeed, my account of the first of those recitals, in October of 2007, was one of the earliest pieces I wrote on this site.) Just as important, however, has been Schiff’s ability to guide the attentive listener through the long journey of an extended composition. Indeed, in October of 2013, he did that twice in one night, playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme during the first half of his concert, followed by Beethoven’s Opus 120 set of 33 variations on Anton Diabelli’s waltz.
However, where the Brahms collections are concerned, they are just that—collections of parts that were probably not intended to assemble into a whole. Thus, while Schiff clearly brought his own points of view with regard to expressiveness to each of the fifteen short pieces he played, both Opus 76 and Opus 116 were executed with little pause between the individual compositions. This suggested that the traversal of each collection was some sort of a “journey” (similar to the “journey” approach he took in playing BWV 988); but that sense of journey was more than a little elusive, if not downright illusory. The result was that each of the two sets skirted the brink of the dreaded one-thing-after-another effect and may even have gone over that brink.
The Brahms selections were flanked on either side by the other two of Hans von Bülow’s “Three Bs.” The first half of the program presented Beethoven’s Opus 78 sonata in F-sharp major. Composed in 1809, this is probably the composer’s most compact sonata, brief in clock-time but abundant in thoroughly engaging technical and rhetorical devices. The pleasure that Schiff took in unfolding the wonders of this piece was almost palpable, leaving one to almost totally forget the six sharps in the key signature!
Schiff concluded the program with Bach’s BWV 811, the last of the six “English” suites, written in the key of D minor. This was a reading that emphasized how the piano could exercise its own way of disclosing the technical features of the score. In addition Schiff knew how to exploit the broader dynamic range of his instrument (a Bösendorfer grand) in the interest of a contemporary approach to rhetoric. The way in which he chose to accent (one might even say “over-accent”) a few selected notes from the concluding Gigue movement may have knocked the steady steps of the dance out of balance; but they also provided a refreshing dose of good-humored spirits. Those good spirits then spilled over into the encore, which consisted of all three movements of Bach’s BWV 971 “Italian” concerto in F major.
At the other end the program began with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 28, a fantasy in F-sharp minor, which he called “Sonate écossaise” (Scottish sonata). Over the course of three movements (played with very brief interruptions), Schiff applied his most dexterous abilities to allow Mendelssohn’s florid passages to sweep across the piano keyboard. The music may have been a bit on the innocuous side; but it served well to “warm up” the attentive listeners for the meatier offerings that were about to follow.