Pianist Andras Schiff appeared in recital under the auspices of Carolina Performing Arts, welcomed by an enthusiastic capacity audience. The all-Beethoven, all late-period program (Sonatas No’s 27, 28, and 29) was warmly received, but something about the performance and the presentation left your usually voluble critic at a loss for words. Let’s see if I can articulate just what seemed problematic, difficult, eccentric, hermetic.
The problem, I think, started even before Schiff came on stage, with the six pages of densely-packed program notes on the works for the evening, in the form of an interview with the artist. Even arriving a half-hour early, there was scarcely enough time to read this, let alone digest it. What’s the point here? To substitute for the listener’s concert experience? At this level of detail, the notes hardly served to give a historical context for the composer or his sonatas. Better to have no notes at all.
Once Schiff started to play, he revealed an artist with an amazing level of technical control. You could hear that each dynamic, each sound, each crescendo or decrescendo had been carefully considered, and that Schiff’s fingers and arms were doing exactly what he wanted. Gradually, however, one began to wonder about the commitment to drama, rhetoric, personality. Art is not about diction, enunciation, technique. No one is moved by purely technical means – these must be in service to an expressive end, whether the expression of an actor on the stage, or a singer in a cabaret. I came to feel that Schiff’s most important interaction was with the notation in the score, not with a song in his heart, or his connection with the music and its effects on the souls of the listeners. The presence of hundreds of people in the auditorium was entirely secondary.
This impression was reinforced by some of the seemingly superficial details of the presentation. The printed program called for an intermission prior to the “Hammerklavier,” but we were informed that there would be no such, and that the program would last 80 minutes. Schiff walked off stage very briefly after no. 28 (for eight or nine seconds), strode back, sat down and began the “Hammerklavier” while the audience was still applauding. An odd, almost autistic disregard for the audience.
The “Hammerklavier” is famed and revered for its technical difficulty, and indeed Schiff played its pounding chords (in the first movement) and myriad notes (in the closing fugue) with clarity. The Adagio seemed to drift endlessly, but that is certainly more Beethoven’s responsibility than Schiff’s. Once again, however, the results left me nonplussed.
The final oddity of the evening was Schiff’s encore – the entirety of the sonata no. 30, Op. 109 in E, neither a “bis” nor a lagniappe, but at twenty minutes in length presuming on the patience of an audience which had already foregone its intermission.