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Andras Schiff

As a pianist, it’s nearly impossible not to admire Andras Schiff’s clear, relaxed way of playing the piano. His thorough, carefully considered approach to music making even extends to the design of his programs: he recently played the complete French and English Suites of Bach in New York, and his Sunday afternoon recital at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall presented a pleasingly balanced arrangement of four familiar works – The Janácek Sonata (“From the Streets”) framed by the two Sonatas from Beethoven’s Op. 27 (both marked “quasi una fantasia”) on the concert’s first half, followed by the half-hour long Schumann Fantasy, Op. 17 after intermission.

Schiff played both Beethoven Sonatas with excellent control of a wide range of dynamics and articulation. He gave frequent attention to motivic and melodic lines played by the left hand. His intelligent approach to the music was reflected in an occasional unusual touch: the pedalled blurring of harmonies in the opening movement of Op. 27 #2  (this was possibly his interpretation of Beethoven’s “senza sordino” marking), the almost non-existent between-movement pauses that transformed the Schumann Fantasy into one long musical arch, and a version of the Fantasy’s third movement that included a momentary return,just before the final bars of the piece, to the the quotation from Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte that concludes the first movement. It’s all the more remarkable that Schiff acheives playing of this high level of refinement with such great ease and obvious enjoyment.

Throughout the recital, though, I found it difficult to remain engaged with the music. The pieces seemed to emerge from Schiff’s efforts with little identity. The striking Janácek Sonata, the uniquely poetic Schumann Fantasy, the imaginative Beethoven Sonatas, all sounded like ordinary, familiar music played by a gifted pianist.

Schiff’s basically conservative approach to music-making is one reason for my reaction. His quick tempi and decidedly non-poetic playing in both the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 27 #2 and the Schumann Fantasy seemed to avoid involvement with the spirit of the music. At times, as in the second movement of Op. 27 #2, his playing was so refined and relaxed as to be almost somnambulent. Schiff generally stayed away from extremes. Possibly the evening’s most notable example of this was the way in which the strange and shocking climax of the Janácek Sonata’s second movement, played by some pianists with wildness and abandon, was presented by Schiff with focused, controlled strength. The result was the aural equivalent of looking at a nicely balanced, well focused, tastefully framed photograph of a tree, instead of standing under a real tree, feeling the bark, smelling the leaves, and being hit on the head by a falling apple.

My other concern is the music Schiff chose to program. A pianist’s choice of repertoire is highly personal and, therefore, clearly indicative of musical identity. How stimulating it would be to hear a pianist of Schiff’s intelligence and dexterity play less well known works by composers like Busoni or Szymanowski, or more recent music by his Hungarian compatriots Kurtag and Ligeti. A recital like Sunday afternoon’s is a remnant of mid-20th century musical life that has largely lost it’s effectiveness as a cultural catalyst. There are certain established pianists (Peter Serkin, Ursula Oppens, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Maurizio Pollini) and increasing numbers of young pianists who are complementing the great traditional works on their programs with vital and challenging new works and are, in this way, making real contributions to the art of piano playing.

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