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Classical Review Musical Overinterpretation: Andras Schiff Delivers a Sparkling Haydn, Mediocre Beethoven

By Bogdan Fedeles

Andras Schiff, piano

Bank of America Celebrity Series

Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory

Friday, Oct. 7, 2005

Last Friday, pianists and piano music lovers alike had the opportunity to hear Andras Schiff, one of the star pianists of our time, in a recital offered by the Bank of America Celebrity Series. The Hungarian-born pianist delivered a recital alternating Haydn pieces (“Capriccio in G Major”, “Sonata No. 53 in E minor”, “Variations in F Minor”) with Beethoven “Sonata Op. 31 No. 1 in G Major” and “Sonata Op. 53 in C Major” (“Waldstein”), topped with two Schubert encores. Schiff’s characteristic wit and ethereal tone yielded a sparkling mix with Haydn’s music but didn’t work nearly as well with Beethoven’s sonatas, which sounded contrived and spastic. Nevertheless, the encores were sublimely redeeming, showing that romantic music best suits Schiff’s style of playing, or perhaps that his Beethoven remains an acquired taste.

Although Haydn’s works for piano are vast, his writings only occasionally make their way into piano recitals nowadays, as pianists usually favor Haydn’s more famous classical colleagues and pupils, Mozart and Beethoven. Yet Haydn’s musical world, especially when it comes to piano writings, (the composer himself was not a renowned virtuoso) is quite distinct — witty, unpretentious, and personal. Schiff’s choice of program is especially commendable, because he juxtaposes some of Haydn’s most interesting works with cornerstones of Beethoven’s sonata output to highlight the similarities, but especially the differences, between the styles of the two composers. Unfortunately, Schiff goes too far, trying to infuse Beethoven with too much Haydnesque wit and too much unfounded rigor.

The Haydn pieces were the true relish of Schiff’s recital. Using precise, fluent finger technique and little pedal, Schiff gallantly showcased Haydn’s deliciously witty music, accompanied by large hand gestures and theatrical facial expressions. Schiff’s great tone quality with its subdued tenderness was a perfect match for Haydn’s frank and personal music, especially in the slow, improvisatory movement of the “E minor Sonata” and in the “Variations in F minor.”

Schiff’s soft and fleeting touch coupled with intense dynamic contrasts greatly enhanced the outer movements of the sonata and the faster variations. Interestingly, Schiff took all the repeats, yet each repeated section harbored more ornaments than before, a common baroque and pre-classical practice that works well for these Haydn pieces.

Just by listening to his music, one can easily imagine Haydn as an old goofy grandpa, always cracking jokes and having a good time. By contrast, Beethoven’s humor is more serious, always underlain with mockery or rage. “Sonata Op. 31 No.1” is a good example; not only among Beethoven’s funniest works, it is also a parody of the old-style, early Classical music. And for a parody to work, it must be told in a serious manner. Yet Mr. Schiff approached this piece with the same light-heartedness as with the Haydn works; the result was unsatisfying.

There were certainly beautiful notes and sonorities, but the piece — infused with too many witty hesitations, awkward accents and grotesque phrasings — failed to come together in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook Schiff’s admirable technique and softness of touch that made the brutally difficult passages of the second movement mesmerizing.

Still, the low point of the program came with the most anticipated piece, Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata. Schiff suddenly switched to the highest gear, delivering a breathlessly fast, super-strict rendition in which even fermatas were rushed. And since fast playing comes with technical difficulties, everything was swamped in copious amounts of pedaling, even more than Beethoven’s controversial indications in the Rondo. Articulation had little clarity, the dynamics were unusual, and the notes in gales effect and the interrupted trills in the third movement were definitely not pretty. Ultimately, the performance started sounding like an amateur student recital.

My impression was that Schiff tried to present a stripped-down version of “Waldstein,” highlighting the main material and airbrushing the details; to me, this interpretation was ineffective. Beethoven’s “Waldstein” is all about integrity and details. The main themes are too prominent to need more emphasis; it is the small changing details that carry the struggle of the piece.

Nevertheless, the audience received the performance enthusiastically, applauding frantically while the somewhat disgruntled Schiff moved on and off-stage several times. Schiff’s discomfort was probably not because of self-critical thoughts but rather because of the audience’s incessant pesky coughing that had elicited signs of discomfort even while he was playing. Curiously, older people (and with the most respiratory problems) form the majority of the attendees at classical music recitals.

Finally, Schiff offered two splendid encores, Schubert’s “Hungarian Melody” and “Impromptu in F minor.” The first, a slow and simple piece, was the perfect vehicle for Schiff’s soft touch and sparkling tone quality. The second, a virtuosic piece, played fast and with a lot of taste showcased the brilliant technique and showmanship needed for a fulminating ending.