Saturday, October 30, 2004

Review: Schiff the Eccentric

The pianist Andras Schiff came to Carnegie Hall Thursday night Irina and I sat in nosebleed land to hear his traversals of the major piano works of Leos Janacek, a set of polkas by Bedrich Smetana, and the third Sonata of Frederick Chopin.

Mr. Schiff has become well-known in part for his ability to new ideas to old works, but in Janacek's deceptively simple On the Overgrown Path, Book I, Mr. Schiff displayed the polyphonic sense which has made him a renown Bach player. He brought out the inner voices of Janacek's sullen rustic score, giving us a feint rustle of leaves here, the eerie stillness surrounding the hooting of an owl there. The score was written in part as a memorial to Janacek's daughter, Olga, who died of typhoid fever in 1903. Mr. Schiff's clear ability as a colorist came through in these short pieces.

Smetana's Poetic Polkas, Op. 8, were somewhat less successful. Smetana attempted to do with these Polkas what Chopic did for the Mazurka; he wanted to elevate a national dance to a high art form. These are charming pieces, but Mr. Schiff took them a bit too seriously, and some of the spontaneity of the Polkas was lost.

Janacek's two major works, his 1.X, 1905 Sonata, and his suite, In the Mists, were well-delivered; the Sonata, a somewhat awkward piece was written to commemorate October 1, 1905, the date a Czech student protesting in favor of a new university was killed by police.

Chopin's 3rd Sonata, his Op. 58, was sluggish and mannered. Known for eccentricity, Mr. Schiff's admittedly original interpretation left much to be desired; he apparently decided to reinterpret Chopin's tempo marking. The first movement Allegro Maestoso was all Maestoso and no Allegro, and was slowed down to such a extent that the movement was robbed of its drama. The Scherzo received similar treatment, coming at a pedestrian stroll rather than at the light, quicksilver Molto vivace that is marked in the score. The Finale continued on this path. Overall, it was a ponderous reading. (The New York Times disagreed with me and called it "sparkling and regal". Regal, yes. Sparkling? Not exactly.)

Mr. Schiff's encores were much better, a Chopin Mazurka and Nocturne, followed by an excellent performance of Mozart's A minor Rondo, K. 511. That Mr. Schiff can play with lucid beauty is self-evident; that he will be different for difference's sake is also self-evident.


At 10:53 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

1) It's Andras, not Andreas
2) What is "nosebleed land"?
3) I completely disagree with you about Schiff's interpretation. I bet if you didn't know how the original was supposed to be played you would have enjoyed it as well. It's like listening to two different pieces. Why not appreciate something for its beauty even if it's not the kind of beauty it was meant to be had?

At 9:32 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

Nosebleed land is slang for seats far from the stage, or in sports, seats far from the field of play.

You are entitled to your opinion. I base mine on my experience as a pianist and an artist. You will find few pianists who are as willing to take liberties as I am, but interpretation has some limits, much as we might like to disregard them. In piano-playing, there are a variety of ways one may interpret the term "Allegro maestoso" or "Molto vivace". What one cannot do is disregard them completely. The music, at least to me, sounds much better when these basic instructions, these fundamental instructions, are followed.

Look, if you haven't heard the piece before, Schiff's performance will sound good. If you have, and if you have studied the piano as I have, you will understand why I believe it can sound much, much better.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

True eccentrics don't just play around with the rules. They break them. Otherwise they wouldn't be eccentrics! : ) By the way, the NY Times today gave Schiff's performance of the sonata a very good review. I'm sure the critic knows something about music as well. I'm a bit of an anarchist when it comes to music. I think it's fun to reinterpret works RADICALLY once in a while, just to hear how it sounds. Remember, drama in music is not always the best thing! I'm a fan of Eastern music, which is very "undramatic", and in many ways, similar to Schiff's interpretation of the sonata, and yet, it is very beautiful and lyrical, and has its own audience.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

Fine, fine. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. I just think there are a lot better ways of playing the Chopin 3rd Sonata.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

You should play it yourself sometime! I want to hear *your* interpretation! Serioulsy. ; )

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

Not likely to happen in the near future, chiefly because I don't like the 3rd Sonata all that much. It's a nice piece, but I've never been able to get into it. I like the 2nd much better, though I think the 2nd is probably considerably harder to play.

I tend to like Chopin taken to extremes. One problem with the 3rd Sonata is that it sort of defies that kind of thinking. The marking of Allegro maestoso is a tough one to handle precisely because it requires the pianist to do two things which normally clash; to play relatively fast but in a stately way. The last movement is basically fast, but with thick textures, lots of note, which make it hard to get moving.

I must say I'm surprised that the NY Times critic called the performance "sparkling". Regal, maybe. But sparkling? The only movement where it is even possible (or desirable) to be sparkling in this piece is the second, and there he was not sparkling.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Well, maybe the word "sparkling" has been redefined to mean: "a brilliant unconventional non-conformist performance". ; )


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