Wednesday, April 18, 2018

András Schiff’s Bold Experiment in Continuity

Pianist András Schiff (photograph by Dieter Mayr, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, pianist András Schiff returned to give the second of two recitals being presented jointly by San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony. As had been the case at the first recital this past Sunday evening, the collections of solo compositions by Johannes Brahms served as a focal point. This time the focus was on the last three of those collections, the three intermezzos of Opus 117, the six piano pieces of Opus 118, and the four piano pieces of Opus 119. Once again the other two of Hans von Bülow’s “Three Bs,” Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, were also represented, along with two “significant predecessors,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for Beethoven and Robert Schumann for Brahms.

This all made for a generous program offering. Indeed, by the time Schiff had played the last of his three encores, roughly two and one-half hours had elapsed since the beginning of the concert. Furthermore, the broad scope of diversity was encompassed through an adventurous approach to presentation, which may have emerged from the challenge of approaching the Brahms collections. That challenge involved the question, which this site had raised in discussing Sunday’s performance, of whether the individual pieces of any of the Brahms collections could be approached in terms of an assembly into a coherent whole. That discussion recalled how Schiff had approached his performance of Bach’s BWV 988 (“Goldberg”) variations as a “journey,” raising the question of whether any of the Brahms collections allowed for such a journey.

The conclusion about the Sunday performances of Brahms was than any “sense of journey was more than a little elusive, if not downright illusory.” Last night Schiff seemed to double down on that “sense of journey,” playing both halves of his program (before and after the intermission) with only the slightest pauses between his selections. These were no longer collections of short pieces. They were two compilations of compositions, which, for the most part, had short pieces as elements. It took a bit of body language for Schiff to establish his approach; but, for the most part, the overall flow of each half of the program was almost entirely free of interrupting applause.

Did Schiff recover that sense of a journey that served his approach to BWV 988 so well? I must confess that I was not convinced. In both halves of the program, he drew upon relatively smooth transitions when it came to the key of one piece and the key of its successor. However, my own training taught me that harmonic progression is rarely all about sequences of chords and the keys they establish. Indeed, one of the other key attributes in Schiff’s approach to BWV 988 came in the program notes he provided, in which he admonished to listener to follow the bass line at all times. At the risk of sounding too reductive, it is the bass line that leads us through the harmonic journey; and the chords and key relationships just provide the features that we observe.

Unfortunately, the one-thing-after-another effect that inhibited any sense of journey through the Brahms collections on Sunday now took over the broader extent of each half of last night’s concert. This was more than a little problematic, particularly since Schiff’s ever reliable technical precision was consistently in full form. Furthermore, his rhetorical sensitivity to the opening selection, Schumann’s WoO 24 “Ghost” variations, made it clear that the last of the variations he played was not the end of the story, a story that was cut off by the composer’s attempted suicide.

Expression was just as rich when the second half of the program began with Bach’s BWV 869, the prelude and fugue in B minor that conclude the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a three-part invention in binary form followed by a richly sinuous fugue in four voices that almost serves as an instructive study in the use of the minor second. There was also a clever dramatic gesture in Schiff’s decision to conclude with Beethoven’s Opus 81a sonata, given the title “Les Adieux.” This sonata has three movements, each with its own programmatic title: “Farewell,” “Absence,” “Reunion.”

Indeed, Schiff, too, returned from his journey to reunite with his audience through three encores. He began by “responding” to the “call” of Beethoven’s sonata with Bach’s approach to a similar narrative, the BWV 992 “Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother,” although in this case the work concluded with one brother bidding farewell to the other. Schiff then pulled out a Brahms rarity, a short unpublished Albumblatt, which was written in 1853 and eventually found its way into the trio of the second (Scherzo) movement of his Opus 40 horn trio in E-flat major, completed in 1865. (It was also more shamelessly appropriated by Meredith Wilson in one of his songs for The Unsinkable Molly Brown.) Schiff then concluded, as he had begun, with Schumann, playing the tenth piece in the Opus 68 Album for the Young, “Fröhlicher Landmann, von der Arbeit zurückkehrend” (the merry peasant, returning from work).

The overall sense of a journey may not have pervaded either of the two uninterrupted halves of Schiff’s recital; but there was no shortage of “a little traveling music.”

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