Returning to the music for which he is most celebrated, Sir András Schiff kicked off a series of recitals in Vancouver centred around the sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Spread over the course of three recitals across two seasons, Schiff has taken on the challenge of presenting the final three sonatas of all four composers, performing one sonata by each composer for each programme. Though such programming ideas often seem more attractive in theory than in practice, these four antepenultimate sonatas formed a delightfully cohesive programme as well as demonstrating Schiff’s masterful artistry to its full effect.

Sir András Schiff © Dieter Mayr
Sir András Schiff
© Dieter Mayr

Starting with Haydn’s C major sonata, Schiff showed his clear affinity for this repertoire. Always poised and unhurried, his playing nevertheless showed a sense of wit and enthusiasm of a player half his age. Particularly striking was his sharply contrasting, almost insolent use of dynamics and articulation in the first movement. This was particularly effective given the monothematic nature of the movement, with each subsequent statement of the theme clearly delineated and developed. Though the Adagio was taken swifter pace than usual and thus missed some of the fluid character of the movement, Schiff achieved the remarkable effect of making the piano sound like a harp in the ornate leaps and runs that figure throughout. The brief finale was a model of witty elegance, but perhaps missed some of the movement’s exuberant character.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major was all warm restraint, especially in the rhapsodic first movement. Here, Schiff took the time to draw out all the nuances in the wandering modulations. The agitated second movement was a stark contrast in its focused, almost manic hysteria. The extended theme and variations final movement clearly showed Schiff’s long affinity with Bach’s music, particularly the Goldberg Variations. This was particularly obvious in his treatment of the third and fifth variations, in which the imitative counterpoint was presented with clarity and intelligence. Similarly, Mozart’s ever-popular C major sonata was performed with such intelligence and freshness that it was like hearing it for the first time. Most striking was his liberal use of ornamentation, which frequently elicited gasps of delight from the audience. However, the combination of the ornamentation and a faster-than-usual tempo result in a somewhat cluttered sounding second movement.

It was in his electric performance of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C minor D.958, however, that showed the true extent of Schiff’s artistry. From the very opening dramatic chords, the audience was taken along a musical journey as thrilling and emotional as any epic. Though his interpretation was notably less vehement than many, Schiff emphasized the subtle shifts in harmony and texture in a wonderfully logical way. From the chromaticisms of the first movement’s development to the unsettling Menuetto that shares little else apart from the time signature with the traditional dance form to the athletic cross-hand writing of the tarantella finale, he demonstrated a dazzling array of colour, texture and volume that was orchestral in scope. Most notable was the second movement Adagio, which was heartbreaking in its intimate restraint. The audience could not help leaping to its feet immediately afterwards – following two delightful Schubert impromptus as an encore, the Vancouver audience surely could not wait for the following two recitals in the series from this singular artist.