One of the most charming moments I’ve seen at a concert in years occurred yesterday at The Music Center at Strathmore. András Schiff, one of the world’s leading pianists, brought a program of the third-to-last piano sonatas of four musical giants to Strathmore. The first half of the program featured the unusually expansive Piano Sonata No. 60 by Haydn and the alternately intimate and thunderous Piano Sonata No. 30 by Beethoven. Intermission was over and it was time for Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16. Many in the audience knew what was coming but many did not. Mr. Schiff lingered over the keyboard an unusually long time, put his hands on the keys … and lo and behold what came out was not Mozart at the height of sophistication but rather the ditty that is practically the National Anthem of Piano Teachers:
The combined gasps from part of the audience and “aaaahs” of the satisfied shock of recognition from others is something I will remember for a long, long time! I think a lot of the Montgomery County audience may have been remembering their long-ago piano lessons.
And thus the brilliance of András Schiff’s current worldwide project – a series of three concerts featuring the third-to-last, next-to-last, and last sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert – made itself known in its first appearance in the Washington area. (The other two concerts, also produced by Washington Performing Arts, will occur in October 2015 and February 2016.)
Officially the Eine kleine klavier Sonate für Anfänger, or “A Little Piano Sonata for Beginners,” Mozart’s timeless C major composition actually originates from late in his career, not early. And could Mr. Schiff do something new with it? You bet! In the repeats of many of the sections of all three movements, he spun additional filigrees and ornaments around the notes – all of them perfectly within the style and guidelines of Mozart’s hyper-classical approach. He briefly brought out left-hand melodies that I, at least, had never paid attention to before, considering them merely typical “bass” lines.
And he appeared to play the whole thing without depressing the sustaining pedal, relying entirely on variations in finger touch to alternate legato and staccato lines. Did Mr. Schiff make any mistakes? Of course not. (Indeed I’m unaware of any wrong notes he played in almost two hours of music-making.) If only everyone could be so diligent about their piano lessons!
The wonder of it all was the variety of the third-to-last piano sonatas by these composers that Mr. Schiff put together in such a unique way. For readers of this theater-oriented website, of particular interest was Mr. Schiff’s performance of Beethoven’s 30th sonata, whose third movement, a set of six variations on an original theme, is to musicologists an obvious precursor of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, the musical source of the play 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman, which originated at Arena Stage in 2007 and continues to be performed by many theaters throughout the region.
Mr. Schiff’s interpretation of the Beethoven very nicely brought out what connects this sonata to its larger counterpart two or three years later – variations not just as a lark, but as a transformation of the original theme into something entirely new. One of the last sonata variations involves the left hand repeatedly twirling around a set of very low notes while the right hand almost crazily wanders around the rest of the piano, a device that can easily sound random or even ugly. But Mr. Schiff perfectly planned out the arc of the third movement so that the “ear” did not get exhausted listening to this, and his settling back into a final restatement of the original theme which closes out the entire sonata was a wondrous moment.
Haydn’s Sonata No. 60 dates from a time when he had left the castle where he had been music director for several decades and had discovered more powerful “pianofortes” on two sojourns in London. Its expansiveness – and many touches of humor – evoke Haydn’s popular late symphonies, with names like the “Surprise” symphony and the “Military” symphony. Mr. Schiff’s playing was both perfectly balanced and winningly joyous.
The final piece – and the largest of the four sonatas – was Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor. Composed a year after Beethoven died – and several months before Schubert himself died at the tragically early age of 31 – the piece is stormy from the outset. But one of Schubert’s innovations in most of his sonatas was to expand the typical outline from three movements to four, making them more like orchestral compositions. Many delightful melodies find their way into this sonata, and Mr. Schiff’s piano sonorities, especially in the glowing, wide-open acoustics of Strathmore, were perfect for Schubert’s inventions.
A final set of three different encores demanded by the enthusiastic audience that nearly packed The Music Center was highlighted by Schubert’s popular Impromptu in E-flat Major, which absolutely thrilled the crowd.
For piano purists who will recognize that I’ve elected to cite Mr. Schiff’s four selections by their less formal, plain-English numberings, here are their official designations in the composers’ catalogs: for the Haydn sonata, Hob. XVI:50; for the Beethoven, Opus 109; for the Mozart, K. 545; and for the Schubert, D. 958.
Many thanks to Washington Performing Arts for bringing Mr. Schiff to Strathmore.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Pianist András Schiff performed on Sunday, March 15, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For Strathmore’s entire concert schedule, see their events calendar. For Washington Performing Arts’ complete upcoming schedule, see their website.