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Late Sonatas: András Schiff at Philharmonie

András Schiff’s cycle of late piano sonatas by four masters of the genre – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – was an ambitious project. The late works by Beethoven and Schubert in particular have acquired a mythical status. These works were written as the composers were approaching their own demise, but they do not simply ‘express’ death. Rather they explore the despair, resignation and isolation experienced whilst attempting to attain acceptance of their impending fate.

Schiff’s concert on Sunday night at the Berliner Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal was the final chapter in his piano cycle ‘Late Sonatas’. The evening opened with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Hob. XVI:52 . Written fifteen years before Haydn’s own death, it does not have the same aura of bereavement as the late works of Beethoven or Schubert. But the work was not without its challenges. Haydn’s piano sonatas were composed for intimate settings, to be played between friends. They were written for harpsichords or fortepianos (a predecessor to the modern piano), making Schiff’s performance on a modern grand piano in a public concert hall a world away from its original context. Schiff’s pedalling was too generous, especially given the extra resonance of the grand piano. The smoothing over of sound that the pedal provided meant Schiff lost the wonderful crispness of Haydn’s piano style.

Creating intimacy was an issue in the first movement too. Rather than asking his audience to come to him, Schiff was more concerned with projecting, meaning that subtle changes in dynamics were missing. This was reversed, however, in the slow second movement, where he was unafraid to linger. With the steady progression of his melody, Schiff enticed his audience to follow him.

Schiff did not have to concern himself with projecting with the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, however, as he enjoyed its menacing low register. Schiff’s playing was unrelenting, but he could also be incredibly delicate. What had been threatening could switch imperceptibly towards pitifulness. The second movement’s contrasting resigned mood was achieved instantly too. What was most striking however, was Schiff’s complete subservience to the music. It was not just the audience that were taken on a journey, but Schiff too. The work’s final resolution was beautifully underplayed. It was not forced. Rather, it simply happened.

Schiff continued with this approach with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D, KV576. As the master of understatement, Schiff closed the sonata gently without putting any emphasis on himself. His pedalling was more careful here too, achieving a greater clarity than with Haydn. But it was Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D960 that displayed Schiff’s maturity. He took the first movement as a slightly fast pace, and he could have dwelt longer on Schubert’s wistful melodies. Yet this was perhaps understandable given his decision to repeat the exposition, allowing his listeners two opportunities to take in Schubert’s succulent tunes.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata is a highly expressive piece, but Schiff never fell into melodrama. The return of the first movement’s opening theme was simply stated, making it all the more beautiful. Schiff is perhaps one of the least flashy pianists. There was an ease and maturity to his playing that lent itself particularly well to late styles. Although Schiff’s performance put the music at its centre, he still succeeded in making these works his own. For Schiff had nothing to prove. He was completely secure in his own playing, and as a result, his voice came through.

Joseph Haydn Piano Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI:52
Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Sonata in D, KV576
Franz Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat, D 960

András Schiff piano

Photos: Priska Ketterer, Lucerne

I am an arts and culture writer currently based in Berlin. As well as writing for Berlin Logs, I have contributed to The Economist, Fanfare Magazine, and Seen and Heard. Follow me on Twitter: @hazel_rowland. Or visit my blog.

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