András Schiff: In Concert – Robert Schumann (ECM New Series 1806/07)

 

András Schiff
In Concert – Robert Schumann

András Schiff piano
Recorded at Tonhalle Zürich, May 30, 1999
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

András Schiff returns to ECM with a live all-Schumann recital. Capturing what he sees as the composer’s “burning inventiveness,” the Hungarian pianist allows himself no contrivance in letting the notes speak on their own terms. He jumps right into the deep end with the vibrant Humoreske op. 20 (1838). Written during a time of separation from his future wife, Clara Wieck, in it Schumann incorporates a hidden “inner voice,” which he imagined as Clara’s own. Throughout its invigorating 28 minutes, we are treated to a mosaic of inner passions. Schiff handles its fluid transitions, intermezzi, and stylish moves with requisite grace, allowing plenty of space in the slower passages for the music’s full effect to shine. This is followed by the Novelletten op. 21 of the same year, which comprise the composer’s most extensive piano work. Though distinguished by its exuberant approach, it too embraces Clara’s “voice from a distance” (Stimme aus der Ferne) as a key animating force. Throughout, Schiff captures Schumann’s dynamic range admirably well, teetering between the Apollonian and Dionysian at every virtuosic turn. Yet it is in the “Concerto without Orchestra” that is the Op. 14 Piano Sonata in F minor (1836, rev. 1853) that we encounter the recital’s most luxurious moments. The pianism shines here in a finessed first movement, while making the third (a set of variations on a theme by Clara) sing like love itself. The final Presto rolls off Schiff’s fingers like water. Schumann had originally intended to call an 1839 tribute to his dying brother by the title Leichenphantasie (Corpse-fantasy). Clara convinced him to change the title for publication, thus giving us the Nachtstücke (1839), of which No. 4 constitutes a consolatory, if bittersweet, encore.

This was the first recording of Schumann’s piano music I ever heard, and is one I will always return to for reference. Schiff proves he is just as comfortable with the Romantics as he is with the Baroque masters, and in Schumann has found a most rewarding synergy. The music is, despite its grandiose touches, undeniably intimate, casting one deep look inward for every outward glance. Prosaic though they may be, these performances are anything but analytical. Whatever your familiarity with Schumann, this is an album you will want to hear.

Leos Janáček: A Recollection (ECM New Series 1736)

 

Leoš Janáček
A Recollection

András Schiff piano
Recorded January 2000, Schloss Mondsee, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“And it floated along on the water that day, like white swans.”
–Leoš Janáček, on tossing his score for the 1905 Sonata into the Vltava River

Intimacy and the piano make for an inseparable pair. At its best, the instrument paints an image of a composer in solitude, forging from its complex array of mallets, strings, and keys a music of one’s own. This is especially apparent in András Schiff’s peerless recital of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), at last given the ECM makeover it deserves. Drawing from Moravian folk melodies and less discernible influences, Janáček’s pianism, by way of Schiff, is all about heart.

The Andante of In the Mists (V mlhách), composed in 1912, plays like a guitar, strings pressed rather than plucked, given renewed life in surroundings of waning visibility. One immediately notices the delicacy of the Schiff touch, and beneath it the supremely robust evocation of the melodic line that balances its way throughout the program’s remainder. He continues pulling at hidden energies in the Adagio that follows, working magic in small bursts. Each emotion falls with the insistence of late summer rain toward the transfixing Presto. One finds here the incredulity of the melodic gesture played out against itself in a roiling sea, where darkness lives only in our dreams.

The Sonata 1.X.1905 (From the street) is an incomplete work written, we are told, in memory of Frantisek Pavlik, a young Czech carpenter bayoneted during a Brno demonstration on 1 October 1905 in the name of higher learning. Dissatisfied with the result, Janáček burned the third movement, a funeral march, and cast the first two into the Vltava. It might have been lost forever had not Ludmila Tučková, who gave its premier in January of 1906, announced that she still had a copy in her possession. Each of its survivors is a mirror of the other, a long and soulful stream that leaves us lost and without company at their conclusion.

The miniatures of On an overgrown path (Po zarostlém chodníčku) form a pinnacle of the composer’s chamber output. Book I of 1908 is the more programmatic of the two. With such titles as “Our evenings” (Naše večery) and “A blown-away leaf” (Lístek odvanutý) at the outset, we are never in doubt as to what is being described. Yet even without these, we can feel our toes spreading in wild grasses, hear the music of autumn drifting across the dawn. The lovely reverberations of “The Madonna of Frydek” (Frýdecká panna Maria) and “Good night!” (Dobrou noc!) linger throughout later vignettes, such as “In tears” (V pláči) and in the call and response of “The barn owl has not flown away!” (Sýček neodletěl!). These last paint an emotional portrait of a composer bereaving the premature death of his daughter, Olga. Such diaristic approaches to musical experience are furthered in Book II (1911), where an Orphic, undulating Andante sits beside a bipolar Allegretto. The concluding three sections fall under the subtitle “Paralipomena” (or supplements), of which the Allegro leaves the most indelible mark.

A recollection (1928) plays us out with the grace of a sunflower bending to the wind.

Although the music of Schiff’s third ECM album evokes so much in the way of sight and sound, it rests firmly on silence insofar as it worships the internal impression, which is ultimately inarticulable. Try as they might, these lips produce nothing worth hearing in light of the music at hand, and so I type instead, hoping that my arbitrary dance of fingers on a keyboard of a rather different sort have done even a modicum of justice to what can more easily be known from buying this superb album and experiencing it for yourself.

András Schiff/Peter Serkin: Music for Two Pianos (ECM New Series 1676/77)

 

 

András Schiff
Peter Serkin
Music for Two Pianos

András Schiff piano
Peter Serkin piano
Recorded November 1997 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Tom Lazarus
Produced by Philip Traugott, Peter Serkin, and Manfred Eicher

In his liner notes, Klaus Schweizer describes a unique meeting of minds when pianists András Schiff and Peter Serkin appeared on stage together for a November 1997 concert held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rather than join forces, these two “protagonists” rubbed those forces together to see what kind of electricity could be produced, so that “the audience had the pleasure of enjoying a contest of temperaments…and may have come away with the impression that such ‘contrapuntal’ music-making can be more stimulating than the harmony of two kindred souls.” The spontaneity of said performance and all its glorious vices have made their way into this subsequent studio recording, for which we are treated to the same sounds that graced the eyes and ears of all who were there for this rare event. As Schweizer so keenly sees it, this is a program of fugal magnificence, each work drawing from Bach’s highest art its own vivid line of continuity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791):
Fugue in C Minor for Two Pianos, K. 426
Mozart’s fugue may be without commission or context, but we can safely assume it was more than an honorary exercise. As its grinding voices quickly resolve themselves into harmonious contrapuntal weaves, we feel a transformation in every resolution. Through a delightful, if slightly cloudy, game of trills and trade-offs, the musicians pull off a garden-fresh take on this engaging opener.

Max Reger (1873-1916):
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven for Two Pianos, op. 86
These variations on a Beethoven bagatelle (op. 119) are like a spindle from which is cast a veritable maypole of permutations. The opening Andante, quoted almost verbatim, brightens with every revolution. With moods ranging from rapture (Agitato) and majesty (Appassionato; Allegro pomposo) to exuberance (both Vivaces) and tearful remembrance (Sostenuto), these colorful miniatures feed like a rainbow into the glowing waterfall of the final Fugue.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924):
Fantasia contrappuntistica for Two Pianos,Busoni-Verzeichnis 256b
What began as an ambitious attempt to complete the unfinished final movement of Bach’s almighty Die Kunst der Fuge turned into Busoni’s crowning achievement. Every gesture of this massive organism is rendered with the utmost artistry and given its full breadth in the exponential possibilities of a keyboard squared. The 10-minute introductory movement alone carries the weight of the whole. A series of fugues and variations “drops” like blocks in a Jacob’s ladder toy, of which the third Fugue and the Intermezzo stand out, the former for its overwhelming heights and the latter for its solemnity.

Mozart:
Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K. 448/375a
Far removed yet of the same passionate spirit is Mozart’s only sonata for two pianos, which receives here as lively a performance as one could ever hope for. Two no less than thrilling Allegros bookend a scintillating Andante, combining to form one of the composer’s most widely recognized pieces and closing this cohesive double album with a thick wax seal.

Since this release, Schiff has continued a longstanding relationship with ECM. Listen and find out where it all began.

Bach: Six Partitas – Schiff (ECM New Series 2001/02)

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Six Partitas

András Schiff piano
Concert recording, September 21, 2007, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After completing his highly praised Beethoven cycle, pianist András Schiff returns to Bach in this spot-on live recording of the Six Partitas. Though published as his Opus 1, the Partitas were Bach’s last compositions for keyboard. Both reasons make it a keystone in the mythical Bach pantheon. Although “partita” is essentially a euphemism for “suite,” in Bach’s hands the form was opened to a freer and more complex sense of infrastructure and performative demands.

The introductions show both composer and performer at their best. The Praeambulum of Partita V is a tour de force of rhythmic urgency and dynamic control. The Fantasia of Partita III is another astounding inauguration, its resplendence cluing us into the genesis of the music to follow. The meditative Praeludium of Partita I contrasts sublimely with the Sinfonia of Partita II, the latter a stately lead-in to the courtliest of the Partitas. The accompanying Allemandes overwhelm with their sparks, conflagrating our souls into rapt attention. The pacing throughout is nothing short of extraordinary. Schiff’s sprightly Correntes glisten like rain-drenched leaves, tempering their surrounding flames with a quiet power.

Schiff truly excels in his ornaments. Take, for example, the heart-stopping trills of the Partita III Tempo di Minuetta, his detailed graces in the Passepied of the same, and the half-step motions of his Partita I Gigue. The Partita II Gigue provides some especially enlivening moments in which the right hand goes high and left hand carries the rhythm downward. Such motions broaden the expanse of the music into epic territories, which is all the more amazing for music that is so closely confined to the arm span of a single performer. Not to be outdone by his own passionate spirit, Schiff finesses his way through the Sarabandes of Partitas I and IV with the gentle persuasion of an aristocrat stripped to the naked heart. Also of note are the flowing syncopations of the Partita II Rondeau, played here to perfection in one of the performance’s most glorious turns. The following Capriccio pirouettes its way through a deft and vivacious choreography.

Schiff’s ordering—V, III, I, II, IV, VI—is conscious, moving in ascending keys from G major to E minor. It also carries us into the most heartfelt pieces therein. Partita VI is the castle of these sprawling grounds. Its lofty spaces give ample breathing room for the loveliest Sarabande of the collection, not to mention a strikingly forward-looking melody. Moving with a delicate ease and supreme comfort, it primes us for the epic Fugue through which all comes to a rousing close.

I have no interest in staking a claim in the already bristling ground of musical criticism as to whether Schiff is the better interpreter. All this humble admirer knows is that, like the other superstars to which one might compare him, he is unafraid to show us how he “feels” Bach. It’s not as if he accesses some pure core of the music that others do not, for he plays it as if it were his own. Whether or not one agrees with his stylistic choices, his commitment to them is undeniable. And perhaps said commitment is a more profound measure of the performer. If we consider some of the greats in this regard—Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Sviatoslav Richter, and Tatiana Nikolayeva—we find in each a style without regret, an allegiance to a particular historical moment (or possible transcendence thereof, in the case of Gould), and a total lack of interest in relativity. Each performance is not an ingot to be judged against the quality and density of others, but is a reflection of the musician’s own creative makeup that is beyond petty comparison. Rather than look at how and why interpretations differ, as listeners we can only find the differences they bring out in ourselves. And are we not also contributing to the uniqueness of the performance? For the same music can change with our moods and circumstances. And so, when we approach the Partitas, perhaps it benefits the music more to consider what we have to bring to the experience that no other listeners can bring, just as we might expect the same for the musician performing it. For me, the strength of Schiff’s playing is that it duly reminds us of our role on the other side of the piano, foregrounding our engagement, which is the music’s lifeblood. We see this in Schiff’s Beethoven cycle, his Schumann, and his Goldberg Variations. And now, with the Partitas we are given a greater responsibility to provide that “live” feeling ourselves in whatever private chambers we inhabit, or with whomever we might share it. This music is always there for us.

Like Bach’s other masterworks for solo instruments, the Partitas have a distinctive aura of completeness about them, which is to say they feel entirely self-satisfied. And it is this satisfaction Schiff brings to his playing: not a sign of arrogance, of professed authority, nor even of excellent musicianship, but rather the consummation that the music invites in the performing and in the listening. This is the genius of Bach: not the music itself, but in knowing our ability to hear in it forgotten pieces of ourselves. It may not be universal music, but so help me if it isn’t universally musical.

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Schiff (ECM New Series 1825)

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations

András Schiff piano
Concert recording, October 30, 2001 at the Stadtcasino, Basel
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“This is one of those few journeys that can be repeated again and again.”
–András Schiff on the Goldberg Variations

Bach, says Schiff, “was a composer with encyclopedic ambitions.” As such, one might say that the Klavierübung—of which the Goldberg Variations are the crowning jewel—was as much an attempt to fill in a musical gap, if not to elevate a preexisting one, in a form so concise that no one could claim its place. In their profoundly moving dance between the Apollonian and Dionysian, the Variations fold and refold themselves like a constantly shifting origami figure reusing the same sheet of paper. Likewise, the collection begins and ends with an all-encompassing Aria, so that by the end one spreads that sheet out to reveal a tightly knit symmetrical pattern of inimitable proportions.

As with any pianistic interpretation of Bach, debates over medium abound. Whatever your instrumental preference, however, I put forward that Schiff’s clarity transcends any and all technical concerns. And let us not forget that the success of any recording lies as much in the hands of its engineers, instrument makers, and tuners. The clarity of this particular ECM recording, and its marriage with Schiff’s performance, is particularly refreshing, for it gives each variation such a firm position in the greater scheme of its placement that we cannot help but become utterly invested in its brief traversal. Schiff’s surgical precision lends itself particularly well to the faster variations—Nos. 1, 5, 8 (a personal favorite), and 21—as it gives them just enough added vigor to make them spring from their cages. For the slower variations—particularly Nos. 9 and 15—this approach means a validation of brevity, emboldening as it does the delicate lines they walk between speech and song. As for the more heavily syncopated numbers, such as 4, 7, 12, and 16, this feeling descends into one of rootedness. For me, Variation No. 14 is the prize and Schiff handles its demanding trills and hand-crossings with the utmost fluency, providing us with more than enough energy to work our way to the Aria’s reprise.

Listening to Schiff play Bach is always an uplifting experience, and nowhere more so than here. The palpable bond between him and the music speaks of a mutual love. The recording scintillates throughout, but is a live one, so everything from piano dampers to the occasional cough comes through. It is worth having in physical form for Schiff’s whimsical “guided tour” of the Variations included in the booklet. While this has the makings of a benchmark recording, I recommend that you also check out Keith Jarrett’s ECM recording of the same on harpsichord. The two make a lovely pair.