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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.

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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.


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