Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 20, 2018

Sir András Schiff is undoubtedly musical royalty but what a pity he doesn’t visit Australia as frequently as the British royal family! His last visit to these shores was over 20 years ago, and given this royal tour consists of just two concerts (one in Melbourne and one in Sydney), it’s no wonder that Musica Viva booked Hamer Hall to hold the capacity audience that turned out to hear him in the first recital of his tour.

While his playing puts Schiff in an exalted class, his manner is warm and simple. There are no airs and graces; rather, with a few words his deeply felt and deeply thought-out opinions are delivered with a touch of humour. The first fruits of his intellect were the structure of the program: a first half centred around the tonality of F-sharp and a second half centred around D minor.

Sir András Schiff. Photograph © Yutaka Suzuki

Putting Brahms at the emotional centre of the program, Schiff chose contrasting but related works that brought the arch-romantic’s utterances into sharp relief. Beginning with Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, then moving to Beethoven’s F-sharp major Sonata, Op. 78 and then to Brahms’s Eight Pieces, Op. 76, the pianist traced a trajectory from F-sharp minor to C major. In the Middle Ages the distance between F-sharp and C was known as the “diabolus in musica” or “the devil in music”; what today we would describe as an augmented fourth or tritone. This midpoint in the chromatic scale is technically as far as one can get from one key to another.

Were there any musical devils to be encountered in this journey, Schiff was on hand to exorcise them all. Mendelssohn’s Scottish Fantasy, whose arpeggiated opening could well be a nod to the beginning of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, revealed many of the hallmarks of Schiff’s superb pianism: a clear and unfussy delineation of texture, the ability to create genuine excitement from perfect passagework without drawing attention to any technical labours, and the gift to allow the music sufficient breath and breadth. Schiff also has the best pianissimo in the business. His softest sounds are finely calibrated and effectively projected.

In particular the Presto finale benefitted from Schiff’s spacing and moulding of the music, which in lesser hands could have sounded like nothing more than a Czerny-esque exercise in scales and octaves.

Beethoven’s unusual and rarely heard Sonata No 24 brought listeners close to the composer’s personal life. This two-movement work has a more relaxed and intimate feel than its famous predecessor, the Appassionata. Dedicated to his friend, Therese von Brunswick, it is full of animated lyricism and not without a sense of humour. Schiff’s beautifully shaped account not only brought to life the melodic arches of the first movement but delighted in the cat-and-mouse humour of the second movement with its not-so-oblique references to Rule Britannia. All delivered without a hint of heaviness, this was an experience of pure delight.

With Brahms’s Op. 76 the audience knew it had entered deep emotional waters. Schiff made the opening F-sharp minor Capriccio seem like a vast supernatural sea, lit from above and below with beautifully shaded timbres. The jaunty B minor Capriccio formed a neat contrast, once again handled with subtlety and lightness of touch. The ebb and flow of the succeeding pieces continued to confirm Schiff as a master of texture, with an unerring ability to focus musical foreground and background, freeing the listener to concentrate on the essential musical message. By way of the penultimate, chordal Intermezzo in A minor, we were led to the final C Capriccio where Schiff dextrously led the audience through its chromatic twists and turns to arrive at its triumphant C major conclusion.

After interval came a focus on D minor, commencing with Brahms’s Seven Fantasias, Op. 116. Melbourne audiences had the pleasure of hearing this cycle some weeks ago played by Paul Lewis. Such great music, does, of course, sustain different but equally valid interpretations. Schiff’s account was notable for its expansiveness, admitting requisite grandeur and drama (especially at the beginning and the end), but also encouraging much quiet introspection. Eschewing all bombast, Schiff’s playing revealed a seemingly emotionally fragile composer, and one capable of great tenderness.

Schiff’s great skill in teasing out the ends of phrases coupled with his delicate colouration produced many moments of exquisite beauty in the quieter pieces, especially the second and the fifth. The bass pedal E in the fourth, E major Intermezzo was telling and perfectly judged, while the delicious chromaticism of the sixth, E major Intermezzo was perfectly delivered. The playing of this cycle alone was worth the price of admission.

Bach’s sixth English Suite was the perfect foil to the Brahms. Schiff unleashed mercurial energy in the Prelude, once again making light of the extended, busy writing, but bringing optimism and joy to his work. Throughout the suite contrapuntal textures were beautifully illuminated and ornamentation perfectly related to melodic and rhythmic contexts. The Sarabande was another highlight with harmonic and melodic elements perfectly balanced and the feather-like treatment of the Gavottes was utterly elegant. During the Gigue once again Schiff created wonderful excitement in his own quiet way, building up to a splendid finish.

Schiff’s astonishing generosity was revealed in his encores. If Bach’s multi-movement Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother (BWV 992) was not enough, we were then treated to the entire Italian Concerto (BWV 971) and then to not one, but two of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words! The last of these, in C major, was delivered with the utmost elfin delicacy.

While Melbourne is fortunate to have many fine piano recitals, this one was a truly memorable occasion where generosity, intelligence, warmth, elegance and insight conspired to bring forth music making of the highest order. It was a privilege to be in Schiff’s presence and more than a royal tour, this night will live long in the memory of those fortunate to experience it.

Sir András Schiff plays in recital at the Sydney Opera House on Monday October 22


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