Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 22, 2018

“First, let’s talk about applause…”

The legendary Sir András Schiff began his Sydney recital with a few words about the music. Or perhaps I should say, about the spaces between the music. For while he did not order the 2500-strong crowd filling the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall to sit on their hands after Schumann’s ‘Ghost Variations’, he made it very clear that, for him, an appropriate response to this confessional palimpsest exhumed from the ragged depths of a broken mind would be silence.

We did not need telling twice. We probably didn’t need telling once. As he sat, hands poised above the keyboard, the strange tangle of notes of Schumann’s final work decaying around him, we sat, holding our collective breaths, any impulse to clap frozen by the overwhelming sense of deep contemplation, of absolute concentration.

Schiff performs from memory. That’s more than an hour of repertoire, played with only a short pause between each movement. Taking into account both halves of the concert, and his concert two days earlier in Melbourne, which had no overlaps with the Sydney program, that’s more than four hours of repertoire presented, without a score, in the space of less than a week. This is impressive in itself, but when you listen to him play, and hear the attention he gives to each and every note, this achievement approaches the realms of mindboggledom.

No wonder no-one clapped after the Schumann. No wonder we kept silent again after three utterly transparent Brahms intermezzi (Op. 117) or a Mozart Rondo which felt like a tessellation of fractals, intricate but never mannered. It was not until the conclusion of Brahms’ Six Pieces for piano (Op. 118) that Schiff sat back and, after a collective intake of breath, the hall erupted in applause.

After interval Schiff opened the second half with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No 24 in B minor, BWV869, luring us into the labyrinth of Western tonality with a seductive clarity and insight before handing us (and Western tonality) over to Brahms for his four final pieces for piano, Op. 119.

And then, Beethoven. It would have been unthinkable for Schiff to come to Australia and not perform Beethoven but, in a way, the Piano Sonata No 26 in E Flat major, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ felt like an afterthought or, perhaps more accurately, an evolution, a moving on. While Schiff maintained the dizzying no-note-left-behind attention to detail, he also seemed to shift into a new gear, finding new power in the bell-like tone of the piano.

The applause after the Beethoven was, if anything, even louder than before, and Schiff rewarded us with four encores, including an exquisite ur-Hungarian rendition of Bartok’s Swineherd’s Dance from ‘For Children’. The clapping was set to go all night until his final encore, the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Time for bed. And time to think about what Sir András Schiff had been teaching us: not how to stay silent, but how to listen.