MUSIC REVIEW : Schiff in Recital at Ambassador

Times Music Writer

Despite the real risks of an unbalanced and practically self-defeating program, Andras Schiff produced a memorable performance when he played his first Los Angeles-area recital on Tuesday night.

The much-recorded Hungarian pianist did not attract a full house to Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena for this important occasion, but those many he drew listened raptly to his oddball agenda: the last three sonatas by Josef Haydn and three sets of miniatures by Bela Bartok.

At the end, there was a small hint of the full range of the 35-year-old virtuoso’s musical proclivities when he played, with stunning elegance, a virtually unknown piece by Franz Schubert, the “Ungarische Melodie” (Hungarian Melody) in B minor. This single encore will have to suffice as down payment on Schiff’s next local recital.

That event ought to happen soon. After what was reported as a major debut appearance in Hollywood Bowl in 1980, Schiff has not visited us again, except via recordings--of a wide and eclectic repertory. His performance Tuesday provided many pleasures, both pianistic and musical, but no comprehensive view of the total musician.


The pianist’s colorful, kaleidoscopic performances of 10 of Bartok’s collection, “For Children,” of the complex and invigorating Dance Suite and of the 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914-17) revealed Schiff the master of pianistic mezzotints, a model miniaturist who can create a specific and haunting mood in three short phrases, yet one capable of long-breathed rhetoric when appropriate.

Still, his bracing performances of the three Haydn sonatas--lucid, well-reasoned, small-scaled and technically impeccable--did not provide the kind of contrast this program needed to make it whole. One longed for the sweep of Lisztian or Brahmsian--one would settle even for Stravinskyan or Dohnanyian--rhapsodies. Somewhere, one feels, in the microscopic detail of Schiff’s exquisite and carefully groomed playing, there is a hero waiting to emerge.