Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro

Saturday, August 19th 2017

András Schiff, piano

Johann Sebastian Bach – Three part sinfonias BWV 787-801

Béla Bartók – Suite op. 14 and Suite sz.81 “Out Doors”

Leos Janacek – Sonata X. 1.1905 in E flat minor

Robert Schumann – Sonata no. 1 in F sharp minor, op.11


A long while ago, in 2012 if I remember well, I got extremely irritated by Sir András Schiff. I will not go into that again, but if you are reading this and are interested you can always go back to the article entitled “Whimsical Marionettes and Stuffy Pianist”. It was therefore with mixed feelings that I accepted a friend’s invitation to go to Schiff’s recital at Rio’s “Theatro Municipal”. To think that I almost missed an extraordinary afternoon because of a bygone grudge!

The recital was on Saturday at 4 pm. I’m totally in favor of weekend matinées, when you are usually much more relaxed than on weekday evenings, after all your daily chores and stress. On weekday evenings, by the time you reach the concert  hall, you are completely exhausted and listening to music becomes much more a passive way to unwind than an active participation in a musical experience. You may get distracted, doze off a little, feel uncomfortable in your seat. On Saturday or Sunday afternoon, your mind is fresh and receptive, your body looser and your power of concentration far greater. That at least was my general mood when I walked into the stately concert hall, a cousin of the Palais Garnier, and took a superb seat to listen to Schiff.

From my first glance at the playbill, I already felt intrigued and expectant. Rarely have I seen such a carefully constructed program. Bach’s fifteen three part inventions (or sinfonias), in groups of five, separated by Bartók’s suites op. 14  and  sz 81 nos. 1 to 3  and, after the last group, nos. 4 and 5. After the intermission, Janacek’s E minor sonata “October 1st , 1905” followed by Schumann’s sonata no. 1 in F sharp minor.  Not only were the choices unusual – the Bartók suites and Janacek’s sonata are definitely not standard repertoire – but the total disdain of chronology was intriguing.

The last time I wrote about Schiff, I called him stuffy. That would be my last choice of adjective to describe him on Saturday afternoon. He walked in amiably, smiling and totally unassuming. His Mao jacket is always impeccable and very elegant. Tails are so dated! No fuss before starting, as I feared – the occasional cough and scurrying didn’t seem to bother him at all.

He  began the Bach, playing with intimacy, as if alone. The touch was at once magical, with that quality which makes you think that the music is coming from the air, something I have always associated with Clara Haskil’s playing. Yet, I was slightly taken aback (never having attentively listened to Schiff play Bach) when I realized that he seemed to be playing a pianoforte – no pedal, very discreet dynamics, practically no legato, in short, a complete recreation of the sound of a pianoforte on a concert Steinway. It took me some time to adjust to it, as I had the feeling he was using such restraint as to seem almost contrived. As I got used to this manner of playing, I began to appreciate it more, but I still felt dubious about the whole idea. There was a necessary restraint of the Steinway’s power that did not seem natural. Yet, Schiff’s interpretation was so coherent and so beautifully rendered that any misgivings became irrelevant.

Another unusual approach had extraordinary results. Schiff left the audience absolutely no time even to think about applauding not only inadvertently between movements, but also in between pieces. Thus the whole first part, from Bach to Bartók to Bach and over again, was played without interruption. This cast a spell over the audience which was one of the most silent I have ever heard. It allowed for total immersion as well as for grasping the idea of associating Bach with Bartók. I’m not expert enough in musicology (not at all, in fact!) to be able to pinpoint why the combination was so perfect. But the differences in style and in time made for a surprisingly logical blend.

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know the Bartók suites for piano. They are beautiful and understatedly powerful music. The op. 14 is also extremely impressionistic, reflecting Bartók’s fascination with Debussy. The last two movements of sz. 81 are in completely different character, and  show the affinities between Bartók, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and the younger Shostakovich.

The second part of the recital was every bit as fascinating as the first, with again a meticulous choice of repertoire, played in chronologically reverse order. The somber Janacek was played before the exuberant Schumann sonata. Again no pause. It could have been one long piece. I do wonder whether Schiff’s decision to play the Janacek before the Schumann has to do with the fact that actually, in a kind of role reversal, the Janacek is arguably the most romantic of the two!

A very affable Schiff returned again and again to receive the resounding and well-deserved applause, all the more energetic for having been repressed for most of the afternoon.

All smiles and graciousness, he gave three encores:  the first movement of Bach’s Italian  Concerto, in a piano version this time, with pedal and dynamics; the first movement of Mozart’s C major sonata; and finally Schumann’s Merry Peasant from the Album for the Young. These two last pieces are part of every beginning piano student’s repertoire and were played masterfully but with all the freshness of youth.