András Schiff, the master of nuance, played two Steinway pianos — one modern, one 19th-century — for his recital of sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert at Benaroya Hall.
What a difference a day makes at Benaroya Hall!
On Sunday afternoon, there was Lang Lang, all spectacular flash and dash at the piano, playing two concerti with the Seattle Symphony to a packed house of excited fans.
On Monday evening, there was András Schiff, the master of nuance and musical wisdom, playing a solo sonata program to a smaller but still robust house of keyboard cognoscenti. One reviewer recently called the 61-year-old Schiff “the anti-Lang Lang,” which seems like a fairly accurate description.
Schiff’s fans were surprised to see two pianos on the Benaroya stage, and even more surprised to see the recitalist step out of the wings bearing a microphone.
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“It’s a very bad idea to start a concert with a speech,” Schiff wryly observed to his fans, going on to note that there would be “no change of program … or pianist.” But he would play two pianos (“not simultaneously!”), both the modern Steinway black grand selected for the occasion by his Seattle colleague Craig Sheppard, and also a brown and opulently curved 1876 Steinway rebuilt by Northwest technician/restorer Obi Manteufel.
The program of four sonatas represented some of the last works in that genre by four Viennese masters: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Schiff chose the modern piano for the first two and the older Steinway for the last pair of works. He could probably make a barroom upright with missing keys sound gorgeous; with two very fine instruments, Schiff had the intriguing ingredients for a remarkably beautiful and varied recital.
The opener, Haydn’s Sonata No. 62, was a breathtaking example of Schiff’s infinitely varied touch, attack and articulation. His phrasing was both imaginative and thoughtful, with some exquisitely soft and refined passagework that sounded as if the keys were brushed with a feather, not struck with fingers. For the Beethoven Op. 111 Sonata that followed, Schiff created a completely different sonic world, starting with a mighty, portentous opening statement and concluding with an Arietta that was all poetic simplicity. The piece ended with such quiet beauty that it seemed somehow rude to break in with applause.
After intermission, Schiff turned to the 1876 Steinway for Mozart’s K. 576 Sonata and Schubert’s great, final B-flat Major Sonata (D. 960). This instrument has a very different voice: not as resonant and rumbly in the bass as the modern piano, but very clean and clear with a little less evenness in the treble and a glittery texture to the upper octaves. Schiff tried out some sustaining-pedal effects in the Schubert, giving the last part of the first movement an intriguingly clouded ambience. Some parts of the fourth movement, however, sounded a bit overpedaled, though Schubert’s glorious melodies were always at the forefront.
A lengthy standing ovation followed, but Schiff returned to the stage only once for an encore, which was a bit of a tease: the initial aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Maybe next time we’ll get the rest of the 30 Variations.