by Nick Stubblefield
AJ Wilhelm for NPR.org
When a solo pianist can fill Carnegie’s two-thousand seat Stern Auditiorium, and has the clout to insist upon bringing his Bosendorfer concert grand to every recital, you know you're in for a world-class performance. On Thursday night, Hungarian-born Sir András Schiff performed a set of piano works that ran the classical gamut —Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach — while bypassing the traditional applause breaks between pieces. The resulting seamlessness at first seemed to disorient the audience, but we adjusted, and Schiff did not relinquish his hold on us until he played the final note.
The opener, Robert Schumann’s Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 24, set a restrained and thoughtful tone for the evening. The piece maintains a slow tempo and soft dynamics, developing the opening theme through a series of variations. The program noted that the composition reflects a manic-depressive period of Schumann’s life, and Schiff’s understated, gentle touch reflected a sensitivity to that context.
Some of the Brahms Intermezzos, extracted from his Three Intermezzos Op. 117 and his Klavierstücke, Op. 118 and Op. 119, peppered the program throughout. The Intermezzos remain popular with both pianists and audiences for their brevity and beautiful, soaring melodies. Schiff's sharp attention to balance on each Intermezzo delivered clear, distinct right-handed melodies underpinned with the left-hand arpeggiations. Melodies rose and fell like the breath and phrasing of a good singer.
Michelle V. Agins for nytimes.com
Bach’s Preludes and Fugues are well-respected in the classical community, in part due to the sharp intellect that’s required for an accurate performance. The Fugues require keen attention to the movement of distinct piano lines (also known as voices) as they weave throughout each work, and Schiff’s rendition of the Prelude and Fugue in B Minor demonstrated that careful attention in spades, as he performed each voice with clarity and careful phrasing.
Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 exemplifies the composer’s style, but is not one of his flashy works. A master of clean articulation, Schiff's fingers seemed to float atop the keys. He played with uniform precision throughout the performance, shining on passages comprised of lengthy scales covering the keyboard’s whole range. He demonstrated that same ability from the first notes he played to the night’s closer, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a.
András Schiff’s ability to perform such a diverse and massive amount of music from memory belies his extreme focus and unerring dedication to his art. While this music speaks to us all, Schiff inspires anyone looking to master their craft.