András Schiff, one of the age’s greatest performing musicians and a pianist with scarcely a peer in the central European classical repertory, performed Monday night at Benaroya Hall, presented by the Seattle Symphony. It was a performance to cherish.
Hungarian-born, Schiff had his early training in Budapest, followed by study in London. He came to prominence in 1975 as a third prize-winner in the prestigious Leeds piano competition. The first prize went to Dmitri Alexeev, the second to Mitsuko Uchida: talk about a vintage year. He became known first as a Bach specialist, giving hugely admired performances and making records of all the keyboard works — the partitas, English and French suites, the 48 preludes and fugues, and the keyboard concertos. (Only the Art of Fugue so far remains outside his public repertoire, and he enticingly said in an interview a while back that it is constantly under his eyes.)
I first heard Schiff on the BBC in a late 1970s live performance, much replayed at the time, of the Bach D minor keyboard concerto. That performance is still memorable for its combination of style, rhythmic precision, and an exuberant, almost improvisatory, sense of freedom and discovery.
In the last 30 years his public repertoire has broadened; he has performed and recorded almost all the keyboard music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and much of Schumann. He plays their chamber music as well as the solo works, and has taken part in superb performances of the Schubert song cycles. His forays into the twentieth century have been limited, though he is a noted exponent of Bartok and Janacek. He also conducts.
Schiff brought an early romantic program to Benaroya — Mendelssohn (the “Variations Sérieuses” and the Fantasia in F sharp minor) and Schumann (the F sharp minor sonata and the Fantasy in C). His playing is technically exemplary. He sailed confidently through the formidable leaps and swoops at the end of the Schumann Fantasy’s second movement, which are often splashy even with the most proficient players.
The other characteristics are absolute fidelity to styles and a remarkable rhythmic precision. But it is far from dry playing. Going with the precision of rhythm is a strong feeling for the music's inner pulse and adaptability to its variety. The contrasting power and tenderness in the Schumann Fantasy’s first movement were strongly delivered, for example, and the trio to the Scherzo movement in the Schumann sonata had an irresistible lilt.
He is not an extroverted player on the stage, and his comportment even has something priest-like about it. The sombre walk to and from the piano and the grave and slightly stylised bows seem to be conveying a message that the audience needs to shape up respectfully to the high level of artistic experience the music offers. A Schiff recital is not an act of communication between artist and audience but between artist and audience on the one hand and the composers and the music on the other. At his Meany Hall recital of Beethoven sonatas a few years ago he stopped in mid-sonata, invited a somewhat bronchial audience to get its coughing over, left the stage for two or three minutes, and then returned to resume playing. I saw something similar in a London recital of his not long before.
On this occasion, happily, we passed muster. though there should have been more of us: surprisingly the hall was two-thirds full. We were rewarded not just with wonderful playing throughout the programmed items but also a remarkably generous encore. When his encore started with the opening piece of Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood,” I assumed that we should get that, and perhaps one more. But no, Schiff played the entire sequence, all 13 pieces, for an encore lasting over 15 minutes.
So the concert ended with a subtly phrased and colored account of its last piece, “The Poet Speaks.” Indeed, throughout Monday evening at Benaroya, he did.