39 years. All the music included in this programme comprised a timespan that does not even reach half a century. Yet between 1789 and 1828 so much happened, as a captivated audience experienced tonight. The programme was enticing: the last piano sonatas from Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert. Interestingly, they were performed in that order, which is not what chronology would dictate, but is perhaps a sequence that seeks to couple musicians with similar fates. Haydn and Beethoven, who comprised the first half of the concert, both lived past their fifties (unusually for that moment in history, Haydn would live past his seventies too); Mozart and Schubert, whose music was played in the second half, would see their existence slashed in their thirties (Schubert would not even make it to 32). This was a concert to celebrate and bid farewell to the sonata for piano from four of its most prominent practitioners.

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

On stage was András Schiff with his faithful Bechstein piano and not a single score. Before him was the task of bringing to life four sonatas with acute distinctness. If there was something extraordinary about this concert – and a few things could most certainly be mentioned – it was the fact that each composer sounded as they should. A few bars in and there was no question about whether it was Mozart or Schubert, and beyond the music itself, much of it had to do with Schiff’s endlessly versatile interpretation. He travelled through time effortlessly and unpacked this journey through the sonata form with relentless dedication up to the last note.

Haydn’s 62nd sonata, written in 1794, is one of the three so-called “London sonatas” the composer would write for the excellent pianist Therese Jansen Bartolozzi, who would also be the dedicatee of three piano trios (Hob. XV: 27-29). The sonata stretches all sorts of boundaries, challenging any preconceptions. It is harmonically rich (often unexpectedly), lengthy (almost of symphonic aspirations) and defies the thematic structure of and balance between the themes. Schiff seemed to have all these dimensions in his mind, and they flawlessly translated into his fingertips. The first movement was gracious, light and virtuous, so neatly spelt out that it would have made a perfect exercise of music dictation. The second movement added serenity – never stillness – to the mix, with Schiff boasting a palette of timbres and exploring beyond the possibilities of his instrument. At times, his fingers stood on a note and vibrated as if he was playing a violin. The final movement was pure exhilaration, fast yet never rushed. Schiff proved that not only music, but silences too can be multifaceted: the audience was treated to seductive silences, questioning silences, threatening silences.

Dramatically threatening too were the stormy unisons and diminished chords that proliferate in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata no.32 in C minor – a meaningful key if there ever was one for the German composer. Schiff has played and spoken about this piece at length throughout his career, and his playing reflected his vision of it as music of extreme gravity that emerges from chaos and creates a whole universe. He was raw and uncompromising, eluding embellishment and diving into a very physical, focused performance. The contrast with the Arietta movement was made all the more evident as a result, the tormenting soul searching giving room to a reflective peace first and a set of increasingly groovy variations later that look so far ahead into the future it almost triggered dizziness.

Mozart brought the audience back to the quintessential classicism, his last sonata unequivocally transparent and deceitfully simple. After the Beethoven marathon, this felt like a fresh breeze, perhaps less challenging harmonically and structurally than the previous works but certainly delightful, and played with wit by a clearly amused Schiff. But one more change of register was still to come, in the form of the last of Schubert’s piano sonatas, a piece that, like so much of Schubert’s music, defies explanation, and while on the one hand it follows a fairly classical pattern formally, it manages to build something entirely new harmonically. Schiff took advantage of every modulation – and there are many that can only be described as epiphanies – and every nuance. This was his best performance of the evening, which is quite a lot to say given that the previous sonatas were superbly interpreted. The line between peace and pain became blurred as the notes flowed, as if both were interchangeable, interdependent. Schubert’s will to live was still present in this music, two months before he was no more.