András Schiff brings consummate artistry to masters’ final sonatas

February 27, 2016 at 11:20 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

András Schiff performed Friday night at Jordan Hall.

Last works have an enduring mystery. They tease listeners with questions about what the composer would have written had he lived longer or had taken the time to write more.

Such questions were in the air at Jordan Hall Friday night as Sir András Schiff performed a robust Celebrity Series program that consisted of the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

It’s tempting to read a composer’s final thoughts about life or the genre into such works, but it rarely makes historical sense to do so. For example, Haydn completed his final piano sonata and then lived fifteen more years, working on different projects. Mozart composed his final sonata in 1789, two years before his untimely death. Beethoven completed his final work in the genre in 1822, and lived to write the Ninth Symphony and last string quartets, as well as smaller scale piano pieces.

Of the four heard Friday night, only Schubert’s final Sonata in B-flat D. 960, came at the end of his creative life. The piece’s lyricism exudes an uncanny optimism, the music seeming to grasp for life in the face of death. But listeners have long thought of this work as a whisper from beyond, a fleeting idea stemming from Schubert’s use of a repeated shadowy trill in the first movement of the sonata.

Schiff is a musician’s pianist with a penchant for presenting difficult programs in a reverential light. Last season he offered Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on a single concert, and tossed in the Arietta from Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 as an encore for good measure. He’s an artist of consummate skill who possesses a fine ear to the details of the works he plays. His technique is remarkably smooth even when he does not employ the pedal. Phrases are often shaped in long, flowing arcs.

His command of Schubert’s style was mesmerizing, and Schiff played the work with a deep sense of mystery. The Scherzo shimmered under Schiff’s light touch while the offbeat ländler at the center of the movement had a rustic verve, with the pianist punctuating the texture with well-placed left-hand notes. The music-box theme of the finale seemed to turn about in place.

He played the first movement with a tender, Schubertian lyricism, and the theme seemed to rise from a haze, a lyrical line taking form in slow motion. In recent years, Schiff has performed Schubert’s final sonata on a fortepiano, which allows for clear articulation of the famous low trill. Yet even on the Jordan Hall Bösendorfer grand, each note of the trill sounded clear. The gem of this setting was the second movement, which Schiff played majestically to highlight the dark corners of this death-haunted music.

His performance of Haydn’s Sonata No. 62 in E-flat major, which opened the recital, brimmed with full tone without ever sounding heavy.

Haydn’s last sonata is widely considered to be his best work in the medium. It’s an ebullient piece, full of charm and moments of aria-like lyricism. But there are brief moments of darkness that seem to look forward to Beethoven.

Schiff played with a firm sense of the music’s architecture. The dotted phrase that opens the first movement was unusually milky, the lines blurring together gently into sumptuous phrases. Haydn’s characteristic wit shone through in the bouncing second theme, which Schiff rendered with a fine touch. The second movement unfolded in phrases of a vocal arc, and in the finale’s lines of sustained, but subdued intensity, Schiff coloring the rollicking phrases with light dynamic shading.

The most charming playing of the evening came in Schiff’s performance of Mozart’s Sonata No. 18 in D major. This last of the composer’s piano sonatas is filled with music of simple elegance and expression. Schiff played the work in fine Mozartean style, rendering the filigree of the first and third movements with smooth technique. The second movement was a pure delight, the lines ringing with crystalline clarity.

In Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111, Schiff gave a performance that captured the full drama and contradictions of the score.

Schiff has a surprising ability to change musical directions on a dime. His tone was menacing for the diabolical main theme of the first movement, yet his lines managed to twinkle elegantly in the softer sections that seem to come from nowhere.

The theme of the Arietta unfolded in hymn-like serenity, and Schiff colorfully shaped the variations, which involved cascading phrases that scaled the keyboard at a brisk pace as well as passages of twinkling starlight. The so-called boogie-woogie variation swelled from hushed tones to passages of full power, with Schiff adding weight to the offbeat rhythms.

Rapturous applause brought Schiff back the stage multiple times. He offered two affecting encores: the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, and Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica.

The next Celebrity Series concert will feature the Tetzlaff Trio in music by Schumann, Dvorák, and Brahms 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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