Sir András Schiff has performed the last pianos sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert together in a concert a number of times before, but on his current tour to Japan he extended both the programme and its guiding principle. With thought-inspiring programming, he played the penultimate sonatas of said composers in Tokyo, which will be followed by the last sonatas in another recital in a few days’ time.

Sir András Schiff © Yutaka Suzuki
Sir András Schiff
© Yutaka Suzuki

The concert took place in one of the most splendid concert halls in the world. Its convoluted name notwithstanding, the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall is an extremely spacious, vaulted pyramid-shape space, warm in colours and generous in proportions, where every visible surface is covered with beautifully designed oak panels. The sound is impeccable, no matter how near or far the listener sits. And the sound was important here, as the concert began with an astonishing phenomenon: from the moment of Schiff sitting down at the piano, there was complete silence in the auditorium for a good fifteen, maybe twenty seconds –  a time filled with almost palpable expectation and utter focus on the forthcoming musical feast –  before the first arpeggiated notes of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in B flat major K.570 rolled off the pianist’s fingers. No coughing, no lolly-papers rattling – absolute silence. It was a seemingly spontaneous, highly respectful and effective gesture, offered by the over 1600 eager members of the audience.

And well rewarded they were, for the crucial common link between the four sonatas was not their penultimate position in their respective composer’s oeuvre, but the prism through which they were revealed to the audience: the performer, András Schiff, with his acute sense of artistry, style, timing, dynamics and, perhaps most importantly, philosophical approach to technical and musical solutions. His Mozart playing was no-fuss in the extreme, yet carried an air of authority seldom heard. Schiff’s playing is “old school” in the best possible sense. His body language reveals almost nothing, as the centre of his attention is the invisible, the relationship between notes, phrases and musical lines. Every movement of his hands is perfectly timed and thus seems to be always at a leisurely pace. His artistry appears to transcend any such shackles as technique, distance or time.

The first movement of the Mozart was not dramatic in the conventional sense but rather a contemplative narrative, and even the slow movement’s opening horn-calls felt more nostalgic than their usual gratifying confidence. Schiff turns every single sonic possibility, offered to him by the modern concert grand piano, to his advantage, and does so brilliantly. At the same time, he is acutely aware of 18th-century performance practices, for example, when, almost casually, elaborating most themes upon repetition with some light ornamentation. This is not in Mozart's score, but such ornamentations were regularly done in that era.

Having barely taken a bow and without leaving the stage, the pianist continued with Beethoven’s enigmatic Op.110 – a most convincing, if rather unusual performance. The contemplative tone heard earlier took on a soul-searching character. This was not the feisty Beethoven of the Appassionata or the Fifth Symphony, fighting bitterly with deafness and loneliness, Fate and God, but rather a distilled, somewhat distanced view of all those battles, as expressed by the ruminations of a wise, much-experienced artist. It was a deeply passionate performance without, however, the unrestrained outbursts, commonly performed, for example, in the fast demi-semiquaver passages of the very first page. These sounded gentle and effortless, with the exact piano leggiermente tone that the composer stipulated. Even the usually boisterous Scherzo was subdued, leading to the pensive arioso dolente of the slow movement and culminating in the crystal-clear structure of the final Fugue.

After the Beethoven, it became obvious that this recital was without an interval. While the idea to maintain the unbroken attention of the audience is an excellent one, the immense concentration of the Beethoven sonata inevitably lightened the impact of the Piano Sonata in D major Hob.XVI 51 by Haydn, in itself a lovely, but brief two-movement essay in the genre. This sonata felt almost as an hors d’ouevre before the final item, the Piano Sonata in A major D.959 by Schubert, as the artist did not allow time for applause but stayed seated and hardly took a breath between the two works.

Schiff’s well-defined, pianistically always impeccable, astutely thought-through, meditative approach was consistent throughout the evening and while I found it compelling in the first two sonatas, I was somewhat less convinced of its effect in the last two. Schubert may have had mere months to live when he composed the A major Sonata, yet it shows an astonishing lack of tragic premonitions and Haydn wrote his sonata probably for a student, hence its shortness and light character.

The response of the audience was rapturous to which Sir András responded generously with no less than six encores, which included Bach’s complete Italian Concerto.