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S & H Recital Review

Chopin, Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart: András Schiff, Piano, Wigmore Hall, February 14th. (M.E.)



András Schiff has always been noted for his versatility and the freshness and originality of his programming ideas, and this extended series, setting Chopin in the context of his influences, was no exception. Schiff believes that Chopin has been ill served by his reputation as an arch - romantic; as he puts it, the 'Chopin - cliché' is still with us, and it was Schiff's intention in this series to highlight the importance of Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart amongst his musical influences.

The two composers most revered by Chopin were Bach and Mozart, so it was fitting to begin the recital with the former's 'Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother,' a delightful piece in which Schiff revelled. Chopin played and taught Bach's works throughout his life, and it is clear that he was an influence on the polyphonic aspect of his music, although the melancholy sweetness of the lament section of this piece brings to mind some of the later composer's more obviously romantic works. Schiff gave it everything he had; sparkling fingering, puckish phrasing in the quasi-comical central section, and solemn, majestic playing of the fugue.

It was a pity that the following Mozart sonata, K533, was less interestingly played; Chopin's love for Mozart manifested itself in so many ways - his last public performance was of the E major trio, and the 'Requiem' was played at his funeral, quite apart from the very similar nature of the two composers' sense of musical structure, and I had hoped to hear a light, sharp, brilliant interpretation, but Schiff played this rather woodenly, only the Andante revealing a masterly sense of line.

It was a different matter with the six Scarlatti sonatas which followed. As Schiff says in his fascinating introduction, Scarlatti was in many ways the Chopin of the 18th century, since both composers wrote almost exclusively for the keyboard, both left their native lands to find success in their adopted countries, and the music of both possesses an indefinable quality of being immediately recognisable. I have to own up to preferring my Scarlatti played on a harpsichord, and it is difficult for me to hear this music without inwardly going through it in my mind on a lighter instrument ('going through it' perhaps especially apt, since Scarlatti so often brings to mind melancholy hours practising the C major sonata (K515) for Grade 5 piano) but Schiff presented these pieces with such élan and such conviction that even I was persuaded, especially during the A minor (K175) in which his playing was so exhilarating that you could almost hear those guitars and castanets.

The evening's major work was Chopin's Sonata no. 3 in B minor, appropriately performed on a Pleyel, made in Paris in 1860. Schumann famously remarked of this work that Chopin had 'merely coupled together four of his wildest children,' but in this performance there was no sense of disjointedness; indeed, from the restlessness of the opening movement, through the gentle, solemn Largo and the challenging, virtuosic finale, Schiff made you aware of the underlying structure of the music as well as its grandeur and vibrancy. Now that Schiff has so convincingly persuaded us of the classical influences on Chopin's music, it seems a logical step to explore at some future time Chopin's own influence, on composers such as Janáçek and Debussy, and I would not be surprised if this ever - original pianist were not at this very moment planning just such a venture.

Melanie Eskenazi


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