When the American composer Elliott Carter reached the seemingly ripe old age of 80, I interviewed him about his late style. He wasn't much interested in either looking back or keeping an appointment with death. His wish was to find fresh ways to stay interested.
Carter told me the same thing on his 100th birthday. He died in 2012 a month shy of 104, and in the nearly 24 years since his supposed onset of lateness Carter wrote dozens of works, large and small, reinventing himself time and again. So much for late style.
András Schiff played the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert Wednesday night in Santa Barbara's intimate Lobero Theatre, a program he will repeat Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Schiff is a magnificent pianist, and these performances were profoundly illuminating. There wasn't a moment in the intense recital not made to mesmerizingly matter.
Schiff has been probing the idea of lateness all year, this program being the culmination of his examinations of the last three sonatas of the three composers who defined the Classical style and the outlier Schubert, who might have been the principal forger of Romanticism had he not died in 1828 at age 31, a year after Beethoven (27 years his senior).
These last sonatas are no more and no less than last thoughts on sonatas. Each represents something different musically and in the life of the composer. Haydn wrote his buoyant 62nd Sonata when he was 62 (Schiff's age), and then spent his last 15 years busy with other projects, such as major oratorios. Mozart was 33 when he wrote his Sonata No. 18, a simple piece on the surface but deliciously seditious on the inside, two years before his death.
Beethoven's famously prophetic Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, raged and summoned angels to a degree that no piano music had ever before attempted. But although Beethoven was through with piano sonatas, taking the genre as far it could conceivably (at the time) go, he moved on to other forms of visionary piano writing.
Schubert, on the other hand, was in the last stages of syphilis when he finished his heavenly Sonata No. 21. But were these fatalistic last thoughts of a young man? Schiff's insightful performance had the feature of eloquently chaste lyricism disrupted by potently unexpected accents or dark trills that were like mysterious signs. There is little indication of a Schubert ready for death.
Schiff has impeccable technique. He demonstrates a degree of concentration that is almost frighteningly intense. He does not attempt to pretend spontaneity. Instead he presents his listeners with a fully considered interpretation.
But conveying an acute sense of being makes Schiff's playing great. That means taking himself and the music seriously without always being serious. In Haydn, Schiff, who has a reputation for having a shocking sense of humor, knows how to tell a joke. He knows the difference between deep emotion and playfulness, and the last movements of Haydn's, Mozart's and Schubert's sonatas were joyous.
Schiff is also a sly pianist. Mozart's sonata is full of commonplace devices. The composer was presumably writing for an amateur royal. But Mozart could not stop himself with subtle musical turns of phrase, with unexpected harmonies. The way Schiff savored inner voices in the slow movement was almost political in its subtle subversion.
To my mind Schiff is the finest Hungarian pianist since Bartók, and outdoes even Bartok in his rhythmic acuity and staggering color palate. The power of Schiff's performance of Beethoven's Opus 111 was as percussive revolution. The sonata's last movement begins as a set of variations on a bewitching arietta but gradually goes out of any expected structural, harmonic, tonal or melodic bounds. Beethoven skips centuries with a vast ringing of trills to which Schiff gave such a metallic sheen that they seemed equivalent to something a French Spectralist composer could only produce with the help of a computer.
Schiff's Schubert was, on this occasion, also unusually metallic. That may have something to do with the pianist's exploration of the early 18th century fortepianos (he's just recorded the last two Schubert sonatas on an instrument from Schubert's day).
But Schiff is, at heart, a modern pianist, and Wednesday's slower performance than on the new recording was both sharply defined and gorgeous. Schubert decorates the slow movement with exquisite tinkling high notes that usually are made to serve as the musical equivalent of illuminating a scene with magical starlight. Schiff underplayed the glitter and, instead, created a counterpoint of something barely detected but utterly necessary. The effect was to make us aware of the background of life, perhaps the motion of atoms or the electrical current of our nervous system. It wasn't magic, but real.
Are these late thoughts? If so, what Schiff offers is not so much what the composers meant but where our thoughts lead when we listen to them, an activity that, at its most productive, has the potential to guide an audience towards the same wavelength.
When a hearing aid beeped just as Schiff was about to play a Bach encore, it almost sounded like something Schiff's Schubert might have set off, and he smiled and said it was in the right key.
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18
Cost: $26.50 – $116.00
Info: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org