Schiff delivers the world—and first-class pianism—in epic Celebrity Series recital

November 11, 2023 at 12:09 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Sir Andras Schiff performed Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series.

As far as Gustav Mahler was concerned, a symphony should be just like the world, embracing everything. On Friday, Sir András Schiff applied that principle to the piano recital, marking his return to the Celebrity Series with an epic, 150-minute-long concert at Jordan Hall.

True, the affair wasn’t quite all-encompassing. Its selections were entirely canonic, some quite familiar. Chronologically, the program spanned little more than a century—but one that ended nearly two-hundred years ago. Yet for expressive depth, stylistic veracity, musical invention, and interpretive vigor, one could hardly have asked for more.

Even the event’s long duration wasn’t a distraction, since a good third of it involved Schiff’s spoken introduction to each work. That the 69-year-old Budapest native proved such a genial emcee, not to mention a fluent and funny commentator was simply icing on the cake.  At one point he brought down the house with a well-timed Mark Twain quip—when was the last time that happened in a piano recital?

Schiff dubbed the night’s overarching theme an “homage to Leipzig” and, particularly, the music and influence of Johann Sebastian Bach. Given the keyboardist’s long history with the German master, that focus hardly came as a surprise.

Even so, the crisp energy and sheer naturalness with which he infused the evening’s Bach items—the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – were remarkable. Especially in the latter items, Schiff’s navigation of the music’s busy counterpoint was impeccably directed.

The Concerto, for instance, was a model of flawless balances and limber shifts of character. Its outer movements were pert and bright, while the Andante offered melancholic, but flowing, repose.

Meanwhile, the knotty Fantasy unfolded like a true, fleet improvisation. Its impossibly sinuous fugue subject, lean-textured and perfectly voiced, danced all the way to the double bar.

Similarly absorbing was Schiff’s way with the night’s Romantic fare.

He drew commendable drama and weight from Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses. If the composer remains “very much underrated,” as Schiff proposed, Friday’s account of this sober 1841 score certainly didn’t stint on spirit or shapeliness. Rather, it emphasized the music’s play of contrasts: sometimes strict, sometimes songful, sometimes darkly puckish.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze present rather wider explorations of musical character, into whose poetic extremes the pianist, playing the original version of the work, gamely threw himself. (“Everything [in Schumann] is better in the first edition,” Schiff observed.)

The pianist’s attention to the particulars of dynamics in the Dances— especially soft ones—never failed to impress: the last two movements, for example, were intensely focused and faultlessly shaped (and providentially not ruined by a cell phone that went off right at the end of No. 17). At the same time, its extroverted moments, like the impish sixth movement and the stormy tenth, drove with purpose and clarity.

What’s more, the score’s playful aura came across readily. This made the music’s sudden and not infrequent turns towards the shadows take on a deeply unsettling quality.

Light and shade also alternate powerfully in Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata (No. 17 in D-minor), which closed the evening’s announced program.

Playing with no shortage of rhythmic energy, Schiff suffused his entire reading with a sense of orchestral sweep. Dynamic contrasts were bold, voicings near-ideal: the pianist’s astonishing ability to cleanly tease out the low register on his Bösendorfer was nowhere more impressive on Friday than it was during the Beethoven’s first movement.

At the same time, this “Tempest” simultaneously looked forward and back. Schiff’s incandescent, rich-toned account of the Adagio offered the same sort of improvisatory rightness and chromatic unpredictability as the night’s earlier Bach offerings.

The finale—mysterious, inward, and taken at a somewhat measured tempo—seemed to anticipate the delicate and spastic aspects of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and later generations. Schiff’s crystalline last iterations of its main theme were hypnotic in themselves, conjuring the rather un-Beethovenian prospect of will-o-wisps dancing in the moonlight.

Friday’s capacity audience, which hung on Schiff’s every gesture with a visceral focus one rarely encounters in Boston, responded with a thundering ovation. Despite the late hour, the pianist was generous, offering a pair of encores, both by Mozart: the short Eine kleine Gigue and the first movement from the C-major Piano Sonata (K. 545), the latter replete with sparkling embellishments on the exposition’s repeat.

The Celebrity Series presents tenor Karim Sulayman and guitarist Sean Shibe in a program of works from Italy, England, Spain, and elsewhere at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Pickman Hall.

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