Review: Schiff shines in eloquent and demanding Chamberfest concert

Sir András Schiff. Photo: Yutaka Suzuki

Sir András Schiff is known for his outspoken socio-political opinions, but on Monday night he let his pianism do the talking. The results were equally as forceful and eloquent.

On Monday night, Chamberfest presented Schiff at Dominion-Chalmers in an idiosyncratic, topsy-turvy program that started with Mendelssohn and ended with Bach.

In Mendelssohn’s F-sharp minor Fantasie (also called the ‘Scottish Sonata’), Schiff approached the composer less like Schumann’s contemporary and more like a throwback to Schubert and Mozart. I’m no fan of this piece, with its kitschy, moors-and-tartan sentimentality, but Schiff’s emphasis on counterpoint and delicate articulation suited Mendelssohn’s stylistic conservatism, and made a more convincing case than most. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 followed, in a gallant, warmly sympathetic performance.  

Schiff is a wonderful interpreter of Brahms, and both the 8 Klavierstücke Op. 76 and the 7 Fantasien Op 116 showed extraordinary dimension and beguiling, intimate charm. Melodic lines were impossibly lush and billowing. The B minor Capriccio from Op 76 was one highlight of the recital, played slyly, almost on tiptoe, with a feline sense of intrigue. The middle second E major Intermezzo from Op 116 was another, the middle section pouring quietly out like a single, endless sigh.

Schiff’s sound isn’t enormous, but it’s consistently beautiful, refined and almost magically varied in colour. Unfortunately, the Bösendorfer concert grand that was specially flown in for him from Vienna last week sounded extremely unhappy from its transatlantic move, dull and tinny in the treble, excessively bottom heavy as this piano brand can sometimes be. The extreme angle at which it was placed on the stage didn’t help.

Schiff’s Bach achieves a miraculous trifecta: boldly modern, deeply romantic, and (mostly) respectful of historical conventions all at the same time. The English Suite No. 6 was typical of Schiff’s genius for expressive flexibility within a disciplined frame, from the forceful, sweeping Prelude, to the melancholy, gracefully ornamented Sarabande, to the final Gigue, the pianist revelling in its weird, angular dissonances.

The pianist returned one last time with the Aria from the Goldberg Variations as a disarming encore.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.