András Schiff has had an association with Wigmore Hall for nearly forty years and while his creative universe has been largely dominated by the works of J. S. Bach and Beethoven it was the 'late' flowering of Brahms that helped shaped this recital.
The programme began with Robert Schumann’s seldom-performed ‘Ghost’ Variations (unpublished until 1939) supposedly inspired by a vision of angels who dictated a theme from the spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Completed after Schumann had thrown himself into the Rhine in February 1854 and shortly before his admission to an asylum, his final piano piece exudes fireside warmth; its gentle hymn-like tune and the five variants held the attention as much for its consoling tone as for Schiff’s delicacy of touch and sensitivity of expression – Schumann’s angels might have been with us looking on in admiration.
At the end, and with his hands resolutely covering the keys to preclude applause, it was clear Schiff’s intention was to create an entity from Schumann, Brahms and Mozart. The progression from 'Ghost' to the first of Brahms’s Opus 117 Intermezzos could not have been more natural – not least in the shared key of E-flat and the autumnal mood. Some pianists over-emphasise the dreamy, sepia-tinted atmosphere with too much pedal or extended pauses where none belong. Schiff allowed these emotionally contained worlds to unfold without indulgence while bringing to the fore the quiet lilting eloquence belonging to these “three cradle songs of my sorrows.” The Second flowed seamlessly and the stark Third gained much from Schiff’s undemonstrative and beautifully-measured approach.
Mozart’s A-minor Rondo is so richly chromatic that any anticipated stylistic gear-change following the Brahms was soon dissolved. Clarity of articulation marked a flawless account in which the florid lines billowed like spun silk. It was only in his rendition of Brahms’s Opus 118 that I began to have reservations about Schiff’s restrained approach. The raw energy of the First and Third Pieces was a little too controlled, almost passionless, so that the set as a whole felt overly introverted and unyielding, the emotional counterbalances absent, despite playing of exquisite tenderness and pathos in the concluding number.
Following a matter-of-fact Bach Prelude and Fugue, a similar sense of keeping this intensely personal music at arm’s length inhabited Opus 119, its intimacy and nostalgia lovingly rendered, especially in the “grey pearl” of No.1. Rhythmic definition gave animation to the Second Piece but its agitato was in short supply as was the extrovert character of the closing ‘Rhapsody’ – glittering only intermittently.
Not so Schiff’s Beethoven. ‘Les Adieux’ unlocked a previously withheld vitality and a fresh palette of colour. Structural logic in the first movement was illuminated by crisp, unfussy playing that gained warmth in the reflective ‘L’Absence’ section and then brilliance for the exultant ‘Le Retour’, Schiff bringing glee to the galloping main theme and tremendous sonority to those bell-like octaves.
For n encore Schiff returned to Bach, one of his thirty Inventions (Two- and Three-Part) from BWV772-801.