Sir András Schiff 

Being a critic, I will begin with a complaint: András Schiff began his recital in Carnegie Hall last night at 8:13. The scheduled time was 8:00. Does he think we have all night?

I’ll tell you when I like concerts to start on time: when I’m on time. If I’m running late, that is a different story. Typical, huh?

I saw by the program that the pianist is “Sir András Schiff” now. Frankly, I didn’t know he was British. He must be the most famous Hungarian “Sir” in music since Solti.

He played four sonatas, by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert (in that order). The Haydn was the Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:50. Its opening lines were beautifully sculpted—exemplary. Then Schiff got a little cute, with rubato, hesitations, and so on. Couldn’t he have at least waited till the repeat? Couldn’t he have let the music be relatively straight for a while longer?

Later in this movement, he had a memory lapse, or in any case a prolonged stumble. But he righted himself.

Rubato is a matter of taste, of course—so is interpretation in general. But I believe that Schiff did too much “interpreting” in this first movement. One can trust Haydn. He knew what he was doing. You don’t need to help him that much.

To my ears, Schiff played the second movement, the Adagio, like he was trying to make it special. But it is special already. The final movement went pretty well, with its humor.

The Beethoven sonata was the late E major, Op. 109. In the first movement, Schiff did some really good phrasing. But, again, interpretation is a matter of taste—and I think that Schiff erred on the side of looseness or self-indulgence. The music did not need the “help” he gave it.

In the Prestissimo, his fingers weren’t quite working. The notes were poorly defined, repeatedly. This was a rare technical letdown from Schiff.

The final movement, in my view, was a flop. Schiff could not stop interpreting. He played like someone pleased with himself. He would not get himself out of the way, to let us hear Beethoven. The music should be transfixing and transporting. Instead, it was all Schiff, pleased with himself (as I heard it).

At the end, the pianist warded off applause by keeping his hands on the keyboard for a long time. He was pretending he had created some holy moment. I regard this as cheap. If a musician has transfixed and transported the hall, he doesn’t have to ward off applause. They won’t applaud till they’re ready.

Given how the first half of the recital had gone, I could not have told you that the second half would be great. It was.

Schiff began with Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 545. The opening Allegro was beautiful and pure. For the next movement, Andante, Schiff chose an interesting tempo—an excellent tempo, which did not dawdle. It was almost a running tempo. And it worked very well. As for the closing Rondo, it had true Mozart style.

Last on the printed program was Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D. 958. This is possibly the least often played of the late Schubert sonatas. It takes exceptional understanding. Schiff had it.

This was honest playing, with no artificiality or ego. The last movement was sensitive but not precious. The performance as a whole was first-class.

For an encore, I thought Schiff would play a Schubert piece—either an impromptu or a moment musical. He played a Schubert piece, all right, and I should have expected it, but failed: the Hungarian Melody. (Schiff started out in Hungary, remember.) The piece was smooth, balanced, and lovely.

Then came an impromptu—the one in E flat, with the tripping triplets. I have long associated this piece with Murray Perahia: it has been his first encore for decades. Schiff played it marvelously. The triplets were limpid. The B-minor portions were fiery but sane. Everything about this reading was right, and the crowd roared.

In my opinion, Schiff and the crowd should have gone home at that point. The evening had been capped. But the pianist quickly sat down for another encore, this time Beethoven’s Bagatelle in B minor. It was very well played but superfluous.

Whether we needed a third encore or not, this was a very satisfying recital, with stretches of greatness.

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