There was a nice tilt to the gladiatorial setting of one man, one piano, two thousand spectators: the piano's slightly rakish angle was going to allow a few hundred more people to see András Schiff's hands in action. And he went straight into action with the brisk anacrusis which opens Beethoven's 1814 Piano Sonata in E minor Op.90. Only ten seconds later, the sensitive contrast in dynamics and articulation foreshadowed the finely tuned, expressive playing we were to enjoy across the evening. Those with a clear view would have noticed that deft pedalling was allowing attention-holding legato between distant notes. This was especially clear in octave passages. Schiff's shaping of Beethoven's melodic gift shone in the second movement whose theme, somewhat reminiscent of Sir Henry Bishop's "There's no place like home" was beautifully delivered.

András Schiff © Dieter Mayr
András Schiff
© Dieter Mayr

It was easier to spot in a four-movement sonata such as Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A major Op.101 that Schiff doesn't hang around for coughers. While never seeming hurried while playing - au contraire when it really mattered - he seemed keen not to let the connections and contrasts between movements be diluted by lengthy gaps. The second movement's quiet elation could be felt deflating in the third movement's wistful opening. This mood, of course, proved as impermanent as any in this form which Schiff, like Beethoven, seems to apprehend and deliver as essentially dramatic.

Dramatic, however, does not mean overwrought and Schiff's tasteful restraint in the Beethoven certainly paid off with the arrival of Bartók's buoyantly barbarous 1926 Piano Sonata. There was real swagger in this performance, especially in the outer movements. Those with advantageous sight line would not only appreciate the fireworks of the hand-crossing passages in the opening Allegro moderato but gain some insight into their contribution to "orchestral" textures. The obsessively insistent rhythms, suggesting Stravinsky's influence, were attacked with great glee. Following the grippingly dark brooding of the central Sostenuto e pesante, Schiff quarried every last ounce of mirth from the closing Allegro molto, whose main theme seemed to share more than a little DNA with Good King Wenceslas. I felt I wasn't alone in my take on Schiff's interpretation as a lady behind me laughed briefly aloud with (rather than at) Schiff's final flourish. This was truly great playing, which surely informed many interval conversations.

The sonata thriving on conflict of key and associated theme, there was an additional layer of programmatic conflict behind Janáček's Piano Sonata, 'From the Street, 1 October 1905'. It commemorates František Pavlík who died during protests about the establishment of a Czech university in Brno. Schiff dynamically delineated the contrasting themes of the opening movement, "Predtucha" (Foreboding). Given the programmatic nature of the work it might not be too fanciful to imagine that the yearning theme represents the Czech longing for higher education and the aggressive six-note response the German protestors counter-blast. A two-movement work like the opening Beethoven, this sonata concludes with "Smrt" (Death), a suitably sombre movement where the sadness of the moment is only interrupted by brief moments of rage. As if to highlight the memorial nature of the work, and its resonance with this year's EIF theme of culture and conflict, Schiff remained still for some time after the final notes - as did we.

Schiff contrasted very nicely the hymn-like and song-like themes in the opening Molto moderato e cantabile of Schubert's Piano Sonata in G major D894. Control of dynamics informed the work's drama significantly. The sudden explosion as the work leaps into G minor was startling. At the other end of the scale, Schiff's control was so fine that, no matter now quiet the penultimate note of a phrase, the final note could be even quieter if he so chose. The yearning in the following Andante was beautifully conveyed as was one of Schubert's most beloved trademarks - contrasting major and minor. It was as though the light in the room was changing. The closing Allegretto was truly joyous in addition to being technically very impressive, especially a heroic melody in octaves for the left hand, accompanied by athletically moving arpeggios in the right hand. Audience response at the end of this work was one of unanimous elation, which continued throughout three encores: a delicately delivered Brahms' Intermezzo in E flat Op. 117 no. 1; Schubert's dizzyingly chromatic Impromptu no. 2 in E flat D899 and the pulse-slowing Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations, a work which Schiff has made his own. It turned out to be the closing Aria, but had it been the opening one I suspect that we'd have sat transfixed for a further hour.

*****