Recitals by strong-fingered pianists are reasonably common. Strong-fingered
pianists with equally strong musical intelligence are a far rarer phenomenon.
Monday night’s Music Center concert by Andras Schiff, however, proved
eminently satisfactory on both counts.
The program itself was a particularly brainy selection. Large works of
Beethoven (the B-flat Sonata, Opus 22) and Schumann (the Symphonic Etudes)
formed the end-pieces. In between were shorter works by both composers:
Beethoven’s strange, prophetic Opus 126 Bagatelles, and two charming genre
pieces (and a third as an encore) in which Schumann seemed to fulfill that
prophecy. It added up to a lovely mixture, all of it beautifully played.
The Beethoven sonata was a special joy, one of the less-often performed of
the 32, but one of the most remarkable. Already, in 1800, the composer was
pushing toward unexplored territories. The work is full of what must have
been at the time strange, unaccustomed sounds. Here and there the pianist’s
left hand takes the principal melodic line, an effect new in Beethoven’s time
that was to become one of Schumann’s favorite devices. The finale, light-
textured and smiling, seems to float in a manner almost Schubertian. Early
Beethoven though the sonata surely is, its stylistic adventures make it seem
later than you think.
The loving, expansive performance by Schiff seemed to take cognizance of all
this. Without overstatement or excessive underlining, he managed to suggest
both the similarities and the violent contrasts between this congenial work
of Beethoven’s youth and the quirky, disjointed outbursts in that strange,
inward set of late-period Bagatelles.
If anything, the evening’s Schumann performances, for all the music’s
romantic exuberance, seemed more classic, more controlled. This is music, the
pianist seemed to say, that can speak for itself. And so it did.