When Schiff is playing, do not disturb

Times Staff Writer

As a piano student in Budapest, Andras Schiff studied with Gyorgy Kurtag, the unworldly -- and some would say finicky -- Hungarian composer. In the 1980s, Schiff made his name through a series of eloquent, exacting Bach recordings. Details matter to Schiff. Intense concentration is essential.

Consequently, there can be a certain tension in the house when Schiff shows up for a recital. In two recent appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall -- a Mozart program last season and the first installment of his planned two-season traversal of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas last week -- audience noises interrupted the performances. It’s not easy for a few thousand listeners to collectively hold their breath.

On Wednesday night, the second Beethoven program went better. A cellphone, a dropped glasses case and a strange flash of light onstage were all minor disturbances. Unlike in the last two concerts, Schiff was able to continue without breaking off. But “better” doesn’t begin to describe the evening. “Great” does.

Schiff strikes some listeners as standoffish. He sits low at the keyboard, looking slightly dwarfed by his instrument. He isn’t engaging to watch. Music comes first and is to be taken on this pianist’s resolute terms. Permission is never granted for anything extraneous or extemporaneous in his interpretations. Hence, his vulnerability to real-world intrusions.


And yet Schiff’s Beethoven is utterly alive, entirely of this world. Typically, he has thought through each note. That his every interpretive decision has been informed by history is apparent from his program notes.

Working chronologically through the cycle, Schiff played the three Opus 10 sonatas for the first half of Wednesday’s program and -- with a different piano for a different sound -- the “Pathetique,” which is Opus 13, after intermission. Although pianists throughout the 20th century happily romanticized these sonatas, especially the “Pathetique” with its famous slow-movement melody, Schiff’s crisp articulation kept them well within a sense of the Classical period of Mozart and Haydn. Bach is a reference as well.

He began the “Pathetique,” for instance, with such distinctively terse attacks on the opening chords that he might have been playing a Bach partita. The connection was clear, since in fact he did play a Bach partita (No. 2 in C minor) directly afterward as an arrestingly long and serious encore.

But what was remarkable about all this was just how untraditional the “Pathetique” sounded. Schiff did some funny business pedaling those opening chords, creating the effect of sound decaying not smoothly but in distinctive dips, to achieve the mysterious notation of loud/soft that Beethoven wrote under the chord. This is the kind of thing electronic music composers like to think is theirs exclusively.


That was maybe Schiff’s most radical interpretive element, but all evening he pulled tricks out of his pianistic hat. In the “Pathetique,” this cool customer was not about to let an ounce of pathos intrude on the slow movement, yet the lovely way he allowed the melody to sing and the almost orchestral sound he got for its accompaniment had something of the character of Bartok’s “night music” slow movements.

The three Opus 10 sonatas were full of flavor. Schiff is dazzlingly modern-sounding when Beethoven syncopates (pure Bartok this time). Beethoven was a young man showing off, both his chops and his ability to subvert classical forms, and Schiff plays this music in a state of constant astonishment, pointing out one incredible moment after another. The simple leaping line in the Allegretto movement of Opus 10, No. 2, was light as air and sounded newly mysterious.

In the slow movement of Opus 10, No. 3, Beethoven was really showing off, attempting to write the most tragically serious music of all time. Schiff let this slow D-minor music settle in and brought intense dignity to its increasingly florid decorations.

He missed nothing of Beethoven’s profundity, but he didn’t let a young composer get away with anything either. The forms are traditional, however much the tone heralds the visionary side of the late Beethoven sonatas.


Schiff is hardly the only persuasive Beethoven pianist around. I remain devoted particularly to Maurizio Pollini and Peter Serkin, a couple of other Apollonians. But Schiff’s multifaceted approach is unique. His is not a cycle to miss.