Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, András Schiff gave his second recital in a three-concert series to explore the late piano sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. The final recital will have to wait for next season. As I wrote a week ago, the first recital had many insights to offer for the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven; but the Schubert performance seemed to fall short of the standards Schiff had set for himself for the rest of the program.
Such was definitely not the case last night with Schubert’s D. 959 sonata in A major. Curiously, this sonata has been a major focus of attention for me this season. Yuja Wang selected it for her only solo recital program in San Francisco this season, which also took place at Davies this past December; and at the end of the previous October, I had the opportunity to enjoy watching Richard Goode coach a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the first movement of this sonata.
While I have written often about composers who used the minor key as an opportunity for more adventurous pursuits, the major key of D. 959 never seemed to attenuate Schubert’s capacity for bold rhetorical moves bordering on the outrageous and approaches to prolongation that would have been unthinkable a quarter-century earlier. He even managed to take a cyclic approach by having the final gesture of the coda of the fourth movement reflect the opening gesture of the first. Schiff clearly did not want any aspect of Schubert’s invention to pass unnoticed. He even chose to include the repeat of the exposition in the first movement, perhaps out of the conviction that there was too much in that part of the meal to be appreciated through a single serving. However, even in allowing the performance to stretch out over more duration than usually expected, he could still capture the tensions of every transition, harmonic and/or thematic, that make almost the entire experience feel like walking a tightrope. This is a performance that highlighted the aesthetic significance behind Schubert’s last three piano sonatas with stunning clarity, using D. 959 as the model exemplar.
As I have previously written, D. 959 was composed only months before Schubert’s death, while the other composers on the program still had much to write following their respective “last sonatas.” On this program D. 959 was preceded by Haydn’s Hoboken XVI/51 penultimate piano sonata in D major. By way of contrast, the Haydn selection consisted of only two movements, each with no shortage of quiet wit. If last week’s sonata, Hoboken XV/50 in C major, suggested that Haydn may have been looking over his shoulder at what his former pupil Beethoven was doing, the D major sonata presents Haydn as perfectly comfortable with his own toolbox. Schiff performed it with just the right light touch, calming things down on audience side before the storm of D. 959.
The first half of the program began with Mozart’s K. 570 sonata in B-flat major. This is one of Mozart’s most inventive sonatas. Indeed, while Mozart acknowledged his debt to Haydn by writing six string quartets for him, K. 570 might almost be approached as yet another gift for Haydn, allowing each theme to play out the possibilities of exploring its variation and prolongation. However, it was also music with a light rhetoric, almost gossamer in quality; and here, again, Schiff used his skill in a light sense of touch to breathe life into this particularly delightful sonata.
That lightness was followed by Beethoven’s Opus 110, yet another sonata in which the composer sought out departures from the conventional paths. In this three-movement sonata, the middle Scherzo is the closest Beethoven gets to convention; and his rhetorical abruptness makes it clear that even this movement is challenging listener expectations. However, the highlight of this sonata is the fugue in the final movement, which provides the only “recapitulation moment” in the sonata (even that recapitulation involves inverting the fugue theme).
Opus 110 thus ends with a wild ride through fugal tradition, honoring it and wreaking havoc with it simultaneously. By all rights this should have been the roller-coaster ride of the evening. Yet something was missing from last night’s reading. It was almost as if Schiff had decided to devote all of his attention to the enigmatic improvisatorial nature of the opening movement while allowing the fugue to take care of itself. The overall result was that the climax of the coda to the entire sonata never quite rose to the intensity it required. Was Schiff still pondering the puzzles of the first movement in his mind even while his body was occupied with that final fugue?
For his encore selections Schiff returned to two of his sources for last week. The first of these was the D. 899 set of four impromptus, from which this time he performed the third in the key of G-flat major. This was followed by the last of the six bagatelles (in the key of E-flat major) in Beethoven’s Opus 126. Finally, Schiff concluded his encore set with a reprise of the first movement of Mozart’s K. 545 sonata in C major, performed with the same quiet elegance that had distinguished last week’s performance of the entire sonata.