EIF 2014 review: András Schiff

First published in The Herald on 26 August, 2014

András Schiff has never been a particularly demonstrative player, and as he gets older his interpretations seem to be getting simultaneously more distilled and more playful. It’s a wonderful combination, but it doesn’t always grab you immediately: his special artistry can take time to reveal itself, as it did in this recital.

The Hungarian pianist spent much of last year (his 60th birthday year) in the company of two composers – Beethoven and Bach – and it was with Beethoven that he opened this programme. He played the Sonata in E minor Opus 90 and the Sonata in A major Opus 101 crisply, almost coolly, with a neatness that seemed to negate all possibility of risk. The tempo of Opus 90 pushes and pulls like a music box constantly running out of puff, but Schiff kept us on ultra-safe ground. His account of Opus 101’s slow movement flashbacks was equally reserved – just a hint of frailty, more noble reminiscence than the psychological breakdown the passage can sound in some hands.

As the recital unfolded, though, Schiff’s demeanour seemed to loosen. He played Bartok’s 1926 Piano Sonata with the passion of a compatriot; the outer movements were sparky, bright and puckish – he leapt from the piano stool as he flung out the work’s final octaves. Leos Janacek composed his Piano Sonata ‘From the Street, 1 October 1905′ in response to the shooting of a Czech protester in Brno on that date; Schiff brought a deeply-felt pathos to the second movement (subtitled simply ‘Death’), granting space and gravitas to its stately repetitions. The recital ended with Schubert’s Sonata in G D894 – relaxed, tuneful and warm.