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March 1, 2012

The Wondrous András Schiff

The audience knew it had been at something special.  You could tell by the murmuring in the crowd on the way out of Zellerbach Hall.  "Wasn't that amazing?"  "Have you ever heard anything like it?"  "He's always been terrific, but this was even beyond expections."  "They throw around the word 'genius' a lot, but in this case, it really applies."  And so on, all the way down Bancroft and out into the surrounding streets, as Berkeleyites and other Bay Areans returned to their cars and their homes and pondered what they had just heard.

Last night, Cal Performances presented András Schiff in a solo performance of Bach, Bartók, and Beethoven.  Sounds pretty good, eh?  You have no idea.  The program started with all fifteen of Bach's Three-Part Inventions, which Schiff played crisply, tenderly, pensively -- his foot never touching the pedal once, so as to give each note the equally weighted precision it deserved.  These little pieces, which Bach composed as instructive material for his son, became in Schiff's hands miniature contemplations of the possibilities of melody and counterpart, thoughtful expressions of interiority and communication.  It was as if we were peering into his mind through his fingers -- Schiff's mind, I mean, but also Bach's.

And then, with barely a pause for one round of applause, the amazing András launched into Bartok's vehement Sonata for Piano, which had been composed roughly two hundred years after the Bach.  This was a different piano entirely:  stormy, expressive, with a huge dynamic range and emphatic chords and discords.  Folk melodies interwove with previously unheard combinations of sound, in a wild musical adventure:  it took us to the edge of our seats, but Schiff had the whole thing firmly under control, and he landed us safely at the end.

Huge applause again.  But now, after the intermission, came the most challenging effort of all:  the entire 33 sections of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, played almost without pause (and entirely without sheet music, as indeed the whole concert was:  this is truly what it means to know music "by heart").  If the contrast between the Bach and the Bartók had seemed severe, it was nothing compared to the contrasts we now encountered within the Beethoven:  from near-silent serenity to pounding aggressiveness, with humor and irony and melancholy thoughtfulness and dour triumph all mixed up together.  Or no, not mixed up, but carefully laid out side by side, in a way that only Schiff (and Beethoven) could manage.

And then, as if THAT were not enough, András Schiff gave the roaring crowd two encores:  a Beethoven Bagatelle and a Bartók Allegro, both just as pleasing and beautiful as everything that had come before.  This was generosity taken to a new level and energy of a previously unseen kind -- all housed in a pleasant, friendly, unassumingly modest person who quietly walked on and off stage, taking his repeated bows with a small gesture of thanks, looking to the sides and above so as to catch the eyes of as many audience members as possible.  We all had the feeling that we were in an intimate setting, despite the 2000-seat hall:  he seemed to be playing just for each one of us, and at the same time for all of us at once.  It was quite an astonishing achievement, and I am very glad indeed that I was there.
March 1, 2012 9:35 AM | | Comments (0)

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