András Schiff is a compact man with a large head. He walked onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Wednesday night like a cross between an absent-minded professor and Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. When he sat at the piano to play Beethoven’s Sonata, Opus 31, No. 1, his hands danced on the keyboard with extraordinary grace. He grinned and grimaced. He delighted in the delicacy of his fingers bouncing off the keys. If Chaplin had been a great pianist, this might have been his Beethoven.
Wednesday’s recital was not all whimsy. Schiff has returned to Disney this season to play the second half of his Beethoven cycle, which will continue with another program next week and conclude with two more in the spring. Opus 31, No. 1 is the halfway point, the 16th of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Schiff, who has just completed a revelatory recording of the cycle on ECM, treats the series as an epic narrative in 32 chapters.
For this recital, Schiff did something extraordinary. He played the three sonatas from Opus 31 together in the first half, which created its own 75-minute drama. The sonatas have different characters. The comedy at the start was merely a way to approach serious matters.
Beethoven wrote these sonatas in 1802. A new century had begun, and hopes were high for a revolutionary new world order. The composer’s relationship with world order, though, was troubled. He sought new realms for music and had, by mid-career, both the youthful vitality and technical competence to achieve what had never before been achieved in music. He was also going deaf. He was simultaneously getting more deeply inside his own head and transcending his ego. These sonatas are the diaries of a crucial moment in music.
Schiff’s Beethoven is intimate. The Hungarian pianist first came to wide attention as a Bach player of illuminating eloquence, which he carries over to his Beethoven. He gives the impression of slowing down time, so that a listener can get inside a phrase or measure while never losing the larger picture.
That is where the wit comes in with Opus 31, No. 1. Beethoven wrote a bass note landing a fraction of a second after a chord, and Schiff finds comedy in it, the pratfall. He treats the long, slow movement as a parody of Italian opera, a little exaggerated and a lot of fun. The Rondo is lyricism lost, a dream interrupted by a goofy final cadence. Beethoven dances fabulously in his imagination and gets all the girls, but then awakes a klutz.
The second sonata in the series is the famous one, “The Tempest,” perhaps Shakespeare-inspired and dark as a winter storm. Schiff is not tempestuous but centered, weathering a soul’s bad night. The third sonata, sometimes called “The Hunt,” looks back to 18th century manners and is full of melody and charm. Schiff played it lighter than air. Here again he was Chaplin, the incomparable actor who gave every little turn of the body or lift of the leg expressive meaning.
Schiff’s intimate playing can be nervous-making. He has had a hard time in Disney in the past. He creates such an atmosphere of attention that any little thing can be a disturbance, and listeners can get so wrapped up in his sound that they forget themselves, drop canes and the like. He has felt compelled to stop, leave the stage and start over, so there is always a bit of extra tension in the house when he is present.
But he and his audience are getting more comfortable with each other. After intermission came the “Waldstein” Sonata, Opus 53. This sonata is a glimpse of the Beethoven to come, the composer who could go to the edge of despair, then miraculously find a way to part the clouds and show a clear sign of heaven, the Beethoven who wrote the most non-trivially hopeful music of all time.
Schiff played the “Waldstein” from inside, with everything cleanly articulated and relatively small-scale. Although just a touch too slow for my taste, the last movement floated on angel’s wings. But the really wondrous thing about this performance was Schiff’s ability to surprise, not just us but seemingly himself.
He’s thought these pieces through very thoroughly, and he is gadding about the country delivering his cycle, yet he manages to make every gesture seem as though he were discovering it for the first time. He is a remarkable Beethovenian -- fresh, original, riveting.
András Schiff, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesday. $36-$92. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.