As part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Musica Viva presented pianist Sir András Schiff in a Gala recital at Hamer Hall on Saturday night. While the vast spaces of Hamer Hall may not be ideal for the confessional-like atmosphere of a piano recital such as this, Schiff’s first performance in Melbourne this century nevertheless drew a large audience, one that included not only a substantial cohort of enthusiastic piano students eager to hear this legendary pianist for the first time but also a large swathe of Melbourne’s leading pianistic luminaries who knew that this was not an event to miss.
My own introduction to Schiff in recital was hearing Bach’s Goldberg Variations in London’s far more intimate Wigmore Hall in the early 1980s – a revelatory performance that still resonates. But as Nelson Friere proved earlier this year, pianists, like fine wine, often only improve with age.
Schiff opened his recital with Felix Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F sharp minor, a seamless tri-partite work seemingly modeled on Beethoven’s own Sonatas quasi Fantasia, and dedicated to one of Mendelssohn’s most faithful friends Ignaz Moscheles, himself a stunning pianist. With the piano sensibly angled so as to allow more of the audience to see the keyboard, Schiff’s ultra-refined tonal palette allowed the lyrical tranquility of the opening to unfold with apparent ease, drawing the audience in, rather than having to declaim to the multitudes. The moto-perpetuo Presto finale that in lesser hands can sound rather too much like Weber or Czerny, was nimble yet never breathless, emphasising melody rather mere technique. This was aristocratic playing of the youthful work otherwise known as the “Sonate écossaise”, and was a foretaste of what was to come.
Beethoven’s compact Sonata in F sharp major Op 78 again was a model an unaffected lyricism, Schiff’s unerring sense of line and textural balance resulting from a simplicity of communication that perfectly matched the undemonstrative musical discourse of this two-movement successor to the more overtly drama-charged Appassionata Sonata.
Either side of interval Schiff presented two collections of shorter works by Brahms – first the Eight Pieces for Piano Opus 76, and then after interval the first installment of the post-retirement gift that Brahms bequeathed forever-grateful pianists, the Seven Fantasias Op 116. Schiff’s Brahms is persuasively eloquent, highlighting both the spirituality and resignation of these somewhat melancholic miniatures. A model of velvet-cloaked virtuosity, this was gimmick-free musical reflection, Schiff coaxing the sound out of the piano, persuasively convincing us that the piano is anything but a percussive instrument. Inner and bass melodies emerged effortlessly as the musical dialogue unfolded much like easy-flowing conversation between intimates.
While standard chronology-driven concert practice might be to open a recital with Bach, it was with the Leipzig master-contrapuntist that Schiff chose to conclude this memorable recital. And so much the better for Bach’s English Suite No 6 in D minor, arguably the richest and certainly the most technically demanding amongst the three collections of keyboard dance suites, was the crowning glory of this Gala recital. Schiff’s Bach credentials are well established and he has devoted a lifetime to exploring and re-exploring the entire keyboard repertoire of the Baroque period’s undisputed greatest composer. This devotion shone through in Schiff’s reading where clarity of articulation, lucidity of part-playing, deliciously refined ornamentation, unfailing sense of line and structure, and continual impression of spontaneity made for a reading where, for once, it was a joy rather than a burden to experience the unfolding of the obligatory repeats. The translucent joy evinced by the pair of diminutive Gavottes alone was worth the price of a ticket.
Much to the appreciative audience’s delight, Schiff then offered a succession of welcome encores. First, Bach’s early work, a Capriccio on the Departure of a much-loved Brother, followed by his tri-partite Italian Concerto with its sublime middle movement cantilena, and finally two Mendelssohn Songs without Words. And so ended this no-nonsense recital by a master pianist, one who was not only in the peak form, but who was also generous in spirit – and we haven’t yet mentioned the three-hour masterclass that Schiff presented the day before at the Recital Centre that by all accounts entranced all who were there. One hopes that we do not have to wait another twenty years before András Schiff – surely the epithet ‘a musician’s musician’ is applicable here – graces our shores again. An all Bach program perhaps? Sometimes dreams do become reality.
Glen Riddle was among the appreciative audience for Sir András Schiff at Hamer Hall on October 20, 2018.