On Tuesday evening, Sir András Schiff gave the first of two recitals in New York City. I actually attended the second in person on Thursday evening and will soon be posting here my thoughts on that performance. Thanks to a collaboration between Carnegie Hall and WQXR, this first recital was broadcast live, and between that and Thursday evening's performance I was able to form a better understanding of what the pianist sought to achieve.
At the heart of both recitals were the late piano works of Brahms. In an interview aired during intermission, Mr. Schiff explained that he had originally planned to perform all these works in a single recital but had felt they were too dark when taken together and needed to be interspersed with pieces of a lighter nature. Certainly the opening piece, Mendelssohn's Fantasie in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28 (1833), was just such a work. It's hard to imagine today that Scotland once exerted a strong hold on the nineteenth century imagination, but the novels of Walter Scott and the poetry of Ossian (later determined to have been a hoax perpetrated by the eighteenth century poet James Macpherson) served as inspiration for any number of composers. In the event, however, Mendelssohn was the only one of them to ever actually visit that country. A number of works, such as the Scottish Symphony and The Hebrides Overture, resulted from that journey and the Fantasie, originally known as the Sonate écossaise or "Scottish Sonata,"is yet another, not that there's any trace of authentic Scottish folk music in it. Instead, the work is most often compared to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the Op. 27, No. 2 in C sharp minor that is subtitled Quasi una fantasia. Like the Beethoven piece, the Mendelssohn Fantasie represents an ingenious blending of fantasy and sonata elements while serving as a showcase for a pianist's skills.
The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78 (1809). This short sonata is not one of the composer's better known piano pieces, but in the hands of a virtuoso such as Mr. Schiff it became a thrilling ten-minute ride for the listener. It's probably for this reason, rather than any feeling Beethoven might have had for its dedicatee Countess Therese von Brunswick, that the composer always considerd it one of his two favorite piano sonatas.
Mr. Schiff concluded the first half of the recital with the first of the Brahms works, Klavierstücke, Op. 76 (1871-1878) consisting of four capriccios and four intermezzi, forms to which Brahms would return repeatedly in his late piano compositions. They are pivotal pieces in the Brahms's oeuvre, the first for solo piano he had written since the Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39 in 1865, and represent a rethinking of the possibilities of his chosen instrument. Here he can be seen moving away from the concert hall and closer to the drawing room, and the eight short pieces are no longer designed to overwhelm the listener but instead to appeal to the emotions in far more intimate manner. Personally, I find these works that linger in the memory and convey a touch of melancholy far preferable to the composer's earlier piano pieces.
After intermission, Mr. Schiff returned to the stage to perform the second Brahms work, the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 (1892). The work consists of four capriccios and three intermezzi of varying moods but generally of a somber autumnal character as befits the work of a composer nearing the end of both his career and his life. At this point Brahms has left behind the grandiosity that often marked, and sometimes marred, his earlier piano works, particularly those performed with orchestra. Nothing could be further from the massive two piano concertos than these simple miniatures that are all the more affecting for their brevity. Here the Romanticism that had always inspired Brahms takes the form of a lingering backward glance filled with a profound sense of resignation.
The program concluded with Bach's English Suites No. 6 in D Minor (c. 1715-1720). The English Suites, like the French Overture and Partitas, are collections of Baroque dance suites written expressly for keyboard instruments, most particularly the harpsichord, and are therefore of seminal importance to the piano repertoire. Each of the six suites begins with a Prelude - in the case of the No. 6 it is in two contrasting parts that closely resemble in form a Prelude and Fugue - and ends with a Gigue while there is some flexibility in the intervening dance movements. In discussing Bach's music, attention is most often paid to his mastery of counterpoint. To his early biographer Johann Nicolaus Forkel, however, the most salient feature of the dance suites was their attention to rhythm. He wrote:
"He [Bach] tried and made use of every kind of meter to diversify, as much as possible, the character of his pieces. He eventually acquired such a facility in this particular that he was able to give even to his fugues, with all the interweaving of their single parts, striking and characteristic rhythmic proportions in a manner as easy and uninterrupted from the beginning to the end as if they were minuets."
Over the course of the first two encores Mr. Schiff performed in its entirety Bach's Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto ("Concerto in the Italian taste"), BWV 971 (1735). The Italian Concerto, together with the French Overture, make up the composer's second book of keyboard exercises, Clavier-Übung II. Another feature these works share is that both the Concerto and the Overture were originally intended for the two-manual harpsichord, a rare occurrence in Bach's oeuvre and one that can cause problems in interpretation when played on a modern piano. In publishing the two pieces together Bach was attempting to contrast for his German audience two "foreign" styles of musical composition. Accordingly, while the movements of the French Overture correspond to dances popular in the Baroque era, such as the sarabande and gigue, the three movements of the Italian Concerto use the markings andante and presto that are more familiar to modern audiences. Bach had already spent a great deal of time transcribing for solo keyboard various works by Vivaldi, and this was his own attempt at a concerto grosso in the style of the Italian master but composed for one instrument alone. Bach held Vivaldi in very high esteem, and perhaps for this reason the Italian Concerto is a more successful endeavor than the French Overture. In the Concerto one hears a playfulness and lightness of touch not often found in Bach's music.
The third and final encore was a Brahms work that according the announcer, had only "recently been discovered." Although no title was mentioned, it was undoubtedly the Albumblatt, described in a 2012 Guardian article as follows:
"A two-minute piano piece by Brahms that had lain undiscovered since it was written in 1853 is to get its debut on Radio 3 this month. Entitled Albumblatt, meaning 'sheet from an album', the composition was discovered in the library at Princeton by the conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood."
Although an extremely youthful work, in strong contrast to the late pieces performed on the printed program, this was nevertheless a charming melody and provided a perfect end to the evening.