Classically ambitious


Very few pianists follow a full recital program with a 20-minute encore.

Very few, as in one: András Schiff, the Hungarian pianist who comes to Macky Auditorium as part of the University of Colorado’s CU Presents series at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27.

Last fall Schiff, esteemed equally for uncompromising musical integrity and an unwavering sense of social responsibility, played the same challenging program that he brings to Boulder in New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. And for an encore, rather than a showy bagatelle, he sat down and played a complete Beethoven piano sonata, Op. 109 in E major.

Schiff was rewarded for his taxing audacity with an unusually glowing New York Times review.

“Master is a term applied too loosely in classical music,” wrote Anthony Tommasini. “But somehow you know one when you hear one, as was clear on Monday night when the pianist András Schiff played a recital before a full house of rapt listeners at Carnegie Hall.”

Tommasini went on to single out the encore as “the most affecting demonstration of mastery,” and then to ask, “How did he have the focus and sheer energy for such an eloquent, calmly authoritative performance of the sonata after his demanding program?” Apparently, it’s all part of being András Schiff: taking on daunting tasks has become an almost routine part of his career. Most pianists find playing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas once a major undertaking; Schiff played the full cycle 20 times from 2004 to 2009. Cycles of works by one or two composers would fill most performers’ repertoires; Schiff has undertaken cycles of major works by Bach (a particular specialty), Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and his fellow-countryman, Bartók.

Reviews show that Schiff manages such marathon tasks with no sacrifice of quality.

“Schiff stands with perhaps only a handful of pianists in his total achievement,“ wrote a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, while a New York Times critic observed that “There is nothing more reliable in the world of classical music today than pianist András Schiff playing Bach.”

Schiff has also gained praise for his political courage. In January 2011 he wrote a letter to the Washington Post deploring the political environment in his native Hungary.

“The latest news is indeed alarming,” he wrote.

“Tolerance levels are extremely low. Racism, discrimination against the Roma, antisemitism, xenophobia, chauvinism and reactionary nationalism — these symptoms are deeply worrying. They evoke memories that we have hoped were long forgotten.”

This was no empty gesture. Schiff was subjected to threats — including one posted online to cut off his hands — and he now doubts that he will return to Hungary anytime soon. “It’s not that I’m afraid,” he has said in the past, “but I don’t want to take the risk.”

The program Schiff brings to Boulder is highly individual, intriguingly mixed and filled with challenges of different orders. Long known for his Bach performances, Schiff starts with the 15 Three-Part Inventions.

“Bach is, to me, the greatest and most important composer of all time,” Schiff tells Boulder Weekly. “His spiritual message is universal. In my modest way, I would like to present a historically informed, yet present-day art of Bach performance.

“We’ve learned a lot from the ‘authenticity’ movement and the use of period instruments, but also from great masters of the past such as Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals and Edwin Fischer. It is possible to combine these inspirations and information. It will always stay fresh and without routine, because the music is so wonderful and one is full of reverence and love for it.”

Originally composed as teaching exercises, the inventions are not customary recital fare. Fifteen short three-part contrapuntal studies do not lend themselves to being played as a set. Performed that way, they challenge the performer to find the individual mood of each piece and make them all as interesting and expressive as possible.

After this restrained, almost academic opening, Schiff turns to one of the most brutal and explosive pieces in the repertoire, Bartók’s fiendishly difficult Piano Sonata. Raised in Hungary and trained at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Schiff is on his home territory here, but that does not help him conquer the technical difficulties of the piece.

The program closes with a test of another kind: the “Diabelli” Variations of Beethoven. The score is based on a rather dull waltz tune by Viennese publisher Anton Diabelli, who requested a variation from major and minor Austrian composers; the set was intended to promote his publishing business.

Contributing to the project with a single variation each were, along with others long forgotten, Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny (remembered for his many volumes of piano studies), and the 7-year-old Franz Lizst. But Beethoven, who literally could not take up a musical idea without exhausting its possibilities, provided not one, but 33 variations. The result is a multihued garden of delights for the listeners — and obstacles for the performer.

The variations range from charming to humorous to beautiful to virtuosic, and everything in between. The challenge to the pianist is to bring out the character of each variation while simultaneously keeping the shape of the set as a whole.

“The Diabelli variations are Beethoven’s opus magnum for the piano, one of the greatest works of music in general,” Schiff says. “After having written 32 marvelous piano sonatas, they come as the summing up of a lifetime’s experience.

  “It was important to me to wait with this work until I’ve studied and performed the sonatas. The most important quality of the Diabelli Variations is obviously its variety. No other work has so many characters, sometimes dramatic and heroic, other times lyrical, loving and tender, often comical and incredibly funny. It’s quite Shakespearean. 

“The difficulty for the performer is to bring out all these elements and to present the work as a whole, not just a series of short genre pieces. We must have an architectural plan, where to make pauses (between variations) and where to carry on immediately. This is not at all clear in Beethoven’s score.”

Altogether, it adds up to a daunting program, and Schiff is one of the very few pianists in the world who could undertake it.


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