Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, András Schiff completed his three-concert series exploring the late piano sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. The recital launched the Great Performers Series for the 2015–2016 season of the San Francisco Symphony and was presented jointly with San Francisco Performances. The program consisted of the final sonatas of each of the four composers. Schiff broke with his usual silent tradition by beginning with a heartfelt announcement that the concert would be dedicated to the memory of George Cleve, recognizing the always innovative approaches the Cleve took to performing Mozart at his annual Midsummer Mozart Festivals.
It therefore seems appropriate to begin an account of last night with the Mozart selection, K. 576 in D major. It is also worth noting that this was probably the least “final” of the four sonatas on the program. Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus has Mozart comparing composing to lining up the perfect billiards shot, and this may be a useful metaphor. Each of Mozart’s compositions tends to have its own self-contained in-the-moment qualities. Mozart wrote many more pieces after K. 576 and most likely never imagined that he only had about two years left to live. He probably never thought that a “moment” for making another piano sonata would never arise.
The result is that K. 576 is an entirely amicable composition that stands perfectly well on its own terms. It may show signs of facility, but those quickly pass when one tries to play the piece or give it attentive listening. Most importantly, however, Schiff captured the easy-going grace of the music’s in-the-moment expressive qualities; and, if Mozart had used his virtuosity to promote the image of a “show-off kid,” Schiff’s approach to K. 576 was almost self-effacing, allowing the qualities of the music itself rise above any showmanship from the music-maker.
Haydn had even more years of productive music-making in front of him when he composed the Hoboken XVI/52 sonata in E-flat major. This was the last of the three solo piano sonatas he composed during his second visit to London between 1794 and 1795. Haydn’s traveling to London put an end to his having Ludwig van Beethoven as a pupil; and from London he may not have known that Beethoven had published his first (Opus 2) collection of piano sonatas, let alone dedicated the collection to Haydn. However, Haydn may have guided Beethoven through the early stages of work on those sonatas.
Beethoven’s early publications showed that he had a great appreciation of Haydn’s capacity for wit and was probably determined to outdo the master at his own game. Whether or not he saw Beethoven as an emerging rival, Haydn never let up in his capacity to pull the most surprising rabbits out of any number of different hats; and in Hoboken XVI/52 the jokes come so fast that the listener can barely keep up with them. Schiff, on the other hand, clearly appreciated all of them and knew how to lend each one its own distinctive character. This involved no end of clever turns in abrupt shifts in dynamics, deceptive phrasings, slightly exaggerated pregnant pauses, and even a few hints dropped through body language and facial expression.
Schiff structured the first half of his program by coupling Haydn and Beethoven. By beginning with Haydn, Schiff could lay out many of the master’s best qualities that the student would always appreciate, even when he had attained his own “master status.” Nevertheless, there is little in those qualities that could prepare either performer or listener for Beethoven’s Opus 111. By the time Beethoven completed this piece in 1822, he had broken any number of molds that had previously determined what a sonata should be; and, while he still had many more pieces to write (including major works for solo piano), he shifted his attention away from rethinking the nature of the sonata once Opus 111 was published.
The sonata has only two movements. The first tends to follow many of the formal conventions, allowing for the fact that Beethoven tended to write longer introductions to the Allegro section than just about any other composer of his day. The second movement, on the other hand, is given the innocuous title “Arietta” and is structured as a set of variations; and this may well be one of Beethoven’s finest Janus-faced moments.
We know that Beethoven’s education included the keyboard music of Bach, with The Well-Tempered Clavier held up as a specific example. However, that “Arietta” marking suggests that he may have known about the title page for BWV 988 with the words “einer ARIA mit verschiedenen Verænderungen” (an aria with diverse variations), now known as the “Goldberg” variations. Compared with Bach’s aria, Beethoven’s “Arietta” is almost a bit more modest; and its evenly-measured phrases seem to reflect Bach’s appreciation for symmetry. Furthermore, even if Beethoven chose the less conventional 9/16 denotation of measure length, there is still a three-beat pulse with suggestions of a saraband.
Beethoven composed fewer variations than Bach for this movement, but they are much more devious in structure. Like Bach, Beethoven seemed to appreciate the value of rhythm in distinguishing his variations; but, as in the statement of the theme itself, his thoughts about rhythm are far more convoluted. Indeed, in one case they are so convoluted that, in his effort to honor the overall architecture of repeated binary form, Beethoven uses the repetitions to squeeze two decidedly different variations into the “space” of one. Finally, rather than capping everything off with a quodlibet, Beethoven departs from what is barely left of conventional variations form with a coda that blows away any remaining expectations that listener may have about what a variations movement is supposed to be.
From a personal point of view, I have to say that I feel very fortunate to have listened to Schiff play this sonata in recital several times (not to mention his most recent recording of it for ECM). For all of those experiences, I never tire of listening to him play this sonata. There is just too much in it for any mere mortal mind to grasp. Every listening experience becomes an experience of discovery, and last night’s discoveries were just as rich as those from past recitals.
Schubert’s D. 960 sonata in B-flat major, which Schiff coupled with Mozart’s K. 576 for the second half of his program, really is a “last” sonata. Schubert probably knew that he had only a few months to live; and D. 960 is the last of three large-scale piano sonatas that Schubert composed in September 1828. Apparently, Schubert played D. 960 for friends the day after he completed it. Now we are a little more than a decade shy of the 200th anniversary of that incredible September month, and D. 960 continues to have as much impact on the solo piano as any symphony by Gustav Mahler has on a full orchestra.
Yet this is not some maudlin exercise of Schubert pouring out his soul while death is nipping at his heels. Rather, like Beethoven’s Opus 111, it is a from-the-ground-up rethinking of what a solo piano sonata can be. Schubert is more generous in maintaining respect for traditional forms, but those forms have been warped by exercises in prolongation that seem to continue along trails that Beethoven had blazed. If the framework has been maintained, the underlying sense of progression makes radical departures from the role that was assumed for harmony, often enhanced by arresting rhetorical devices applied to dynamics and phrasing.
In contrast to Opus 111, D. 960 was a “first contact” experience with Schiff (after having listened to many other pianists both in recital and on recording). Yet, as is so often the case with Schiff, it was also a hearing-for-the-first-time experience. As usual, Schiff knew how to bring out every one of the details with just the right level of clarity, making D. 960 just as much a “journey of discovery” as his approach to Opus 111 had been.
Still, Opus 111 lingered with the last word in a somewhat peculiar way. Schiff’s encore for the evening was the Aria theme of BWV 988. Had he chosen this deliberately as a final reflection of Opus 111’s second movement, or did he just want a bit of quietude after the thundering final movement of D. 960? The experience of listening to music will always abound with such “unanswered questions.”