Sir András Schiff has a propensity towards designing recital programs around an overarching theme and is currently focusing his attention on the final trilogy of piano sonatas by each of the great Viennese classicists – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Sunday afternoon brought the much-anticipated conclusion of this monumental cycle to Chicago in a packed hall, and all expectations were exceeded as Schiff delivered nothing but playing of the highest order. He performed the program on a Bösendorfer – fitting indeed to play Viennese repertoire on a Viennese instrument – even more effective than in the second installment last November when he memorably performed half the program on a modern Steinway and the remainder on a reconstructed Steinway from 1876.

Sir András Schiff © Nadia F Romanini
Sir András Schiff
© Nadia F Romanini

The opening chords of Haydn’s final essay in the piano sonata were arresting, and marked Schiff’s seriousness of purpose and reverence to the composers. His use of the damper pedal was fairly liberal but carefully judged nonetheless to add appropriate weight. Schiff approached the piece almost as one would a Beethoven sonata, and this more heavy-handed drama never really felt out of place in such a substantial work although the playful secondary theme did provide a quintessential Haydnesque moment of levity. After the unequivocal E flat major of the first movement, the Adagio daringly ventures into the very distant key of E major. One of Haydn’s most deeply felt creations, Schiff imbued it with a tender lyricism heightened by a sumptuous, unbroken legato. The finale began subtly in barely a whisper. The energy builds and cascading runs drove the piece towards a propulsive conclusion.

Beethoven’s unequaled Op.111 followed, and it was certainly apt to juxtapose this student and teacher in the first half. Many pianists elect to play the opening pair of descending octaves in both hands instead of in the left hand alone as Beethoven indicated. But Beethoven was never one to engage technical difficulties purely for show, and Schiff followed the composer’s directive accordingly, to powerful effect. The tempo in the dramatic first movement wasn’t terribly fast, as Schiff ground through its unabated tempestuous, determined to transcend – from the eerie tremolos in the bass to the dense fugato, dissected with surgical precision. At long last, the major shone through in the subdued coda, almost sotto voce.

An extraordinary state of spiritual repose was heralded by the opening chord of the expansive second and final movement. These variations seemingly leave no ground untouched and are strikingly prescient – what were daring experiments in rhythm in Beethoven’s day inevitably sound like hints of jazz to the modern ear. A series of trills initiates music unlike anything else ever written and these moments of transcendence lead one nearly to the edge of hysteria. I was reminded of Wendell Kretzschmar, the beloved musicologist from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, who in an extended lecture on the piece notes that it represents the culmination of sonata form – and Schiff’s profound interpretation corroborated this lofty claim.

Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K576 was not intended to be his last, but in fact the first of a series of six written on commission from Frederick William II of Prussia. The hunting horn opening was played with wonderful energy, and the notoriously difficult rapid scales were handled with aplomb. Although this was the most classical (and earliest) work on the program, the Adagio anticipated the nocturne with spacious improvisatory freedom. The finale began in stately fashion, but became increasingly rambunctious with some more impressive fingerwork from Schiff, eventually giving way to a perfectly unassuming finish.

Whereas the razor sharp themes in a Beethoven sonata are meticulously developed, in Schubert matters are much more nebulous and allowed to spaciously unravel over time – and nowhere is this more apparent than in his final sonata. The right hand melody in the first movement was given an almost bell-like tone to magical effect over a wondrous rippling accompaniment played with the nearly liquid elasticity of his left hand. All repeats were observed, and this certainly wasn’t music one wanted to end. The Bösendorfer paid its dividends here especially – Schiff noted that playing Schubert on a Steinway is tantamount to speaking Viennese German to someone who only understands Hochdeutsch. The incessant crossed-hands gesture in the slow movement plodded along as a funeral procession until things opened up in the middle section and the hall was filled with the warmest and most affectionate tones one could ever hope to hear.

As the first encore, Schiff gave us the desolate Andantino from Schubert’s previous sonata – one of the composer’s deepest outpourings of melancholy. From the volcanic outbursts midway to the otherworldly invocation of the G flat impromptu, Schiff held the audience spellbound. And finally, Bach, to whom all four of the composers are indebted, in the Aria from the Goldberg Variations – how I wish there had been time for the complete work!