By R.M. Campbell
Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, who opened the Seattle Symphony Distinguished Artist Series Monday night at Benaroya Hall, has always gone his own eclectic way, doing an entire program devoted to the tiny piano sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, for instance, or Bach and Janacek, Schubert, Bartok and Mozart. For his Seattle recital, he paired Mendelssohn and Schumann.
One does not think of the two as a natural combination, but one should. They were born only a year apart — Mendelssohn in 1809 and Schumann the following year — and were part and parcel of the early Romantic movement in Germany. Each died young: Mendelssohn in 1847, at 38, and Schumann, nine years later, at 46. Their talent was obvious early on, Mendelssohn particularly, with careers that were wide-ranging and far-reaching. Lyricism came naturally to both. The Mendelssohn pieces were well-chosen, from the justly celebrated “Variations Serieuses” to open the concert, and the F-sharp Minor Fantasia to start the second half. Paired with the “Variations” was Schumann’s First Sonata and to close the formal program was Schumann’s great Fantasia in C.
To every work, Schiff brought seeming ease and deep virtuosity, very much needed because the pieces were so challenging with a multitude of technical issues. There was no hesitation, no smudges, no shortcuts. Even if Schumann did not always possess a “mastery of design,” Schiff did, shaping phrases into coherent paragraphs of sound. Everything he did seemed to have a point, backed by high intelligence and much thinking and a scholar’s knowledge of the music.
The “Variations” puts Mendelssohn in the small class with the greatest luminaries of the Austro/German school. The set of variations has a sense of forward propulsion that is essential to its appeal. Schiff captured that entirely with the performance that was always moving, sometimes deliberately and sometime spontaneously but moving nonetheless. His reading had enviable flair and panache allied with purpose and poise. It was an appropriate introduction to the whole evening. The Fantasia is not so well-known or played as the “Variations.” It is not a piece to everyone’s taste, but it has plenty of merit which Schiff found and presented with finely cut polish. He sailed through the concluding Presto and its dazzling technical demands. It was exhilarating. Like Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Schumann’s piano sonata, in the same key, is not to everyone’s taste despite its bountiful tunes and warmth. It can be diffuse and dense. However, it would be hard to think of a more able advocate than Schiff. He gave life to its lyric bounty and organized all of its many ideas as well as one could. To everything he brought a beautiful, singing tone. The C Major Fantasia is widely regarded as Schumann’s finest work for piano. Schiff provided a just sense of majesty, heightened poetic sensibility, sheer power and vivid imagination.
All together, the concert will be remembered for its originality and magnetic playing.