Sir András Schiff at Carnegie Hall –  Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven & Haydn 

“Aria” from Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Capriccio in B flat, ‘On the departure of a most beloved brother’, BWV992
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV903

Variations sérieuses, Op.54

Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31/2 (The Tempest)

Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII: 6

Piano Sonata in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)

Sir András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 16 November, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Returning to Carnegie Hall for the first time since 2019, Sir András Schiff offered a recital full of drama and surprises – especially surprises, since no program notes were available in advance. The event was rather like a concert lecture, with each piece preceded by explanatory comments from the artist, contextualizing the selection and sometimes illustrating a point by playing brief passages. 

Sir András began by simply walking out on stage, sitting down at the piano, and playing the opening bars of the well-known Aria da capo from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With no printed lineup of compositions to be performed, some audience members quite understandably assumed they were going to hear the whole 80-minute opus until the pianist stood up and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t play all of it tonight.” Speaking in a soft, unassuming manner he joked that this night was “his debut in Carnegie Hall – as a speaker” and then went on to share his ideas about how concerts have become too predictable and need to be rejuvenated. 

After declaring that “Life is too short for anything but the best” and referring to Bach as “the greatest composer of all time”, he returned to the keyboard and proceeded to show why – in a delightful performance of the Capriccio on the Departure of a Most Beloved Brother, a musical farewell from the 19-year old Bach to one of his older brothers, Johan Jacob, who left Germany to join the band of the Swedish King Charles XII. Without making much of a fuss, Schiff brought out all the charms of the nostalgic narrative, most noticeably in the final movement: a fugue based on notes of a post horn.   

The recital then moved on to more mature Bach with a mesmerizing accountof the deservedly famous Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, one of the composer’s most improvisatory and expressive keyboard works, largely because of the freedom of form and chromatic modulations that characterize the first half. The Fantasy – abounding in twists, turns, tempo changes, and modulations – started slowly and accelerated organically, leaving the way open for a fast and brilliant rendition of the Fugue, brimming with excitement and momentum.

Next came a weighty and dramatic rendition of the Variations sérieuses by Felix Mendelssohn, who Schiff described as “very much underrated” while reminding us that it was the composer’s 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin that began the Bach renaissance. Schiff had no trouble meeting the virtuosic demands of the formidable piece. His was a highly articulated account, full of contrasts – sometimes songful, other times austere, occasionally mischievous – as it moved from one variation to another organically, culminating in a stunning finale.

After introducing the “Tempest” sonata as “one of the great masterpieces of all time”, the pianist demonstrated how Beethoven achieved special effects with specified pedals in each movement, particularly the unconventional use of the sustaining pedal in the sonata’s opening. He then plunged into a passionate and thoroughly compelling rendition of the work, bringing out the inner life of the music through extensive use of rubato and frequent variations in tempo.

The second half of the program began with the Variations in F minor by Joseph Haydn, a composer Schiff described as “very much under-appreciated”. After callingthe 1793 work, the last thing Haydn composed for solo piano, a “neglected masterpiece”, he then launched into a remarkably detailed and attentive account, allowing each theme to reveal the depths of its inner character, from cheerful exuberance to melancholy, and concluding with a darkly brooding coda.

The recital ended with a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No.21 (“Waldstein”).  Well, it almost ended. Though the hour was late, Sir András graciously offered three encores, which he introduced by saying, “You’re welcome to sing along with me now” before embarking on his own arrangement of Samuel Cohen’s “Hatikvah” (The Hope), the national anthem of Israel. Some audience members did sing along in Hebrew, albeit very softly; others just hummed. After that came the familiar Allegro from Mozart’s Sonata No.16, K545, and the cheerful little tune, “Fröhlicher Landmann (The Happy Farmer), from Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young, Op.68.

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