On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the great pianist András Schiff in recital, the second the pianist gave in New York City in the space of a week. The eclectic program was built around the works of Brahms but also included so many well known pieces by other composers that the recital became in effect a retrospective of piano works from the Baroque through the Romantic era.
The program opened with Schumann's Theme and Variations in E-flat major, WoO 24 (1854), more commonly known as the Geistervariationen, or "Ghost Variations." Schumann was, of course, one of the greatest composer of solo piano works, most particularly in the early part of his career when he was courting Clara, herself a virtuoso pianist. He returned to the genre in the early 1850's; but it is his penultimate attempt, that played here, that has always attracted the most attention since its composition was inextricably linked with the onset of Schumann's psychosis. Hearing it performed in recital is always an eerie experience. While the theme is farily generic - in his rapidly deteriorating mental state Schumann thought it had been dictated to him by angels, although it was actually one of his own invention that he had previously employed in his 1842 F major string quartet, Op. 41, No. 2, in his 1849 Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op.79, and finally in his D minor Violin Concerto completed only the year before in 1853 - the variations are notable precisely for their lack of variation. The first three, in fact, make no modifications whatsoever to the theme.
A curious aside is that Brahms, who only came to know the Schumann's immediately before the onset of Robert's psychosis, years later came to use Robert's theme in his own Variations on a Theme of Schumann in E flat major, Op. 23. The four-hand piano piece was dedicated to Schumann's daughter Julie, and one wonders what the young woman must have thought upon receiving so macabre a gift.
Appropriately enough, the next work was the first of Brahms's three final pieces for piano - Three Intermezzos, Op. 117 (1892), Klavierstücke, Op. 118 (1893), and Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (1893) - that were interspersed with the works of other composers throughout the length of the program. All three collections date from the end of Brahms's career.
In the Op. 117 Brahms continued his late exploration of piano miniatures he had previously begun in his Op. 116. By this time he had more or less retired from composing, or so at least he had insisted in an 1890 message to his publisher. He found himself unable, however, to refrain entirely from creating new pieces while seated at his piano no matter how brief and ethereal they might be. The urge to create must simply have been too strong for him to resist. The Op. 117 consists of only three pieces that have been compared to lullabies, and the first in fact makes reference to the Scottish lullaby "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament."
The Op. 118, consisting of six miniatures, is another late work and one can hear in it a certain nostalgia and wistfulness; it's as if the composer were pausing to take a look back before attempting to distill within it all that he had learned of music. This is a quiet and reflective work with no virtuoso turns afforded the pianist, and that may be one reason it is not that often performed in recital. The brief pieces are organized according to their own internal logic. After the first intermezzo in A minor, the pieces follow a ternary (ABA) form as well as a set key sequence. The titles are somewhat arbitrary and seem to have been chosen more for their suggestive power than anything else. Brahms was above all a Romantic and this autumnal work is suffused with the spirit of a wanderer who has at last reached the end of his journey. As such, the Op. 118 is a subdued masterpiece by a great composer at the height of his powers who wishes to offer his audience one last testament before fading into silence.
The Op. 119, made up of three intermezzi (a somewhat generic term when used by Brahms) followed by a rhapsody, was the composer's penultimate work for solo piano. Like those comprising the Op. 118, these short pieces are filled with the melancholy of a man approaching his life's end. All three collections were published in 1893, only four years before his death at age 65. But the composer did not here indulge in any nostalgic return to old forms but instead moved forward into an exploration of dissonance. As he wrote to Clara:
"Every bar and every note must be played as if ritardando were indicated, and one wished to draw the melancholy out of each one of them, and voluptuous joy and comfort out of the discords."
Among the great composers, Mozart was represented at this recital by the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 (1787). This short piece, only about ten minutes in length, was one of the finest Mozart ever composed for solo piano. Like most of his works in a minor key, the rondo is a dark work; but whether it is meant to be tragic or merely pensive (as Vladimir Horowitz once suggested) is open to interpretation. Certainly, if it is an expression of grief it is handled in a thoroughly restrained, almost stately, manner.
Mr. Schiff is justly famous for his mastery of Bach's keyboard pieces, and the recital would not have been complete without the inclusion of one of the composer's signature pieces - the Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. The WTC, whose confusing title has to do with a particular method of tuning keyboards, was written in two parts, the first in 1722 and the second in 1742. Both were used primarily for pedagogical purposes while at the same time serving as a vehicle intended to showcase the composer's mastery of counterpoint. In a certain sense, both parts, known as Books I and II, overlapped one another as each presented exercises for all 24 major and minor keys. In fact, some of the those that appeared in Book I were used again in Book II but transcribed for different keys than in the original. Chopin later adapted Bach's idea in the composition of his Preludes, Op. 28 which were again written for all the major and minor keys. While Bach intended the work for the use of his students, and indeed required them to write out all the preludes and fugues in their own hand, each is technically challenging and can only be attempted by an exceptionally skilled pianist.
The recital concluded with with Beethoven's Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major,Op. 81a (1809-1810). The work's French nickname Les Adieux was given it at the publisher's insistence; but the German Das Lebewohl is what Beethoven himself wrote over the score's first three chords and insisted came closer to the meaning of farewell he had had in mind when writing the piece. It's not really surprising that the composer, at least at the time, wanted nothing to do with anything French as the piece was begun in May 1809 in anticipation of Napoleon's siege of Vienna. In fact, the work was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph who was forced to flee with the rest of the Austrian nobility as the French forces approached the city. It was only on Rudolph's return in January 1810 that the composer completed the final two movements, ending with the joyous Das Wiedersehen ("Reunion"). The sonata thus became one of the few instrumental works by Beethoven to have an extra-musical program attached to it. Rarely did he display his emotions as openly as he did here. Along with the earlier Op. 53 and Op. 57, this is considered one of the three major piano sonatas of Beethoven's middle period.
One interesting feature of this recital was that Mr. Schiff performed the entire first half with only the briefest of pauses between pieces. He blended them so seamlessly together that they sounded to the listener like a single magnificent work. The effect on the audience was mesmerizing. In the second half, Mr. Schiff again performed the first two works with no substantial pause between them and only stood up for a brief bow before immediately commencing the final work, the Beethoven sonata.
The two recitals taken together constituted a wonderful display of virtuosity. At the end of the second I felt I had a much greater appreciation of all the works performed but most especially the Brahms miniatures. Hearing all the late Brahms piano pieces played in sequence allowed me to better follow his creative process.