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András Schiff: Artist Portrait
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856): Arabeske, op 18; Béla BARTÓK (1881 – 1945): Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz119: I Allegretto; Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Piano Trio Movement in E flat major, D897 "Notturno"; George Frederic HANDEL (1685 – 1759): Suite No. 1 in B flat major, HWV 434: Prelude – Sonata – Aria con variazioni – Menuet; Sándor VERESS (1907 – 1992): Hommage à Paul Klee: IV Unten und oben (Allegretto piacevole); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791): Trio for piano, clarinet and viola, K498 "Kegelstatt": III Rondeaux: Allegretto; Bedrich SMETANA (1824 – 1884): Polka in G minor; Robert SCHUMANN: Nachtstücke, op 23: III Mit grosser Lebhaftigkeit; Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat major, op 87: III Allegro moderato, grazioso; Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op 58: III Rondo: Vivace
András Schiff (piano); Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer (Bartók); Yuuko Shiokawa (violin), Miklós Perényi (violoncello) (Schubert); Dénes Varjon (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra/Heinz Holliger (Veress); Elmar Schmid (clarinet), Erich Höbarth (viola) (Mozart); Members of the Panocha Quartet (Dvořák); Staatskapelle Dresden/Bernard Haitink
Recorded 1994–1998.
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61588-2 [71:50]

One of the truly great pianists of our time has here been granted an Artist Portrait, and a very good one at that. Compilations like this often tend to be filled with snippets and hackneyed material. In this case Warnera have managed to find repertoire that shows the many-sided talent of the artist, takes us to some unexpected by-ways and, taken as a whole, constitutes a very satisfying "concert". We meet Andras Schiff, not only as a solo pianist, but as concerto soloist and chamber musician as well; in fact almost two thirds of this disc is non-solo work. And, finally, all of it is music-making of the highest possible level. Since this is Warner the choice of repertoire has been limited to the Teldec catalogue, for which Schiff has recorded only since the mid-1990s. In other words, this is fairly late Schiff (he was born in 1953, so "late" in this case still means fairly young). He started back in the 1970s recording for the Japanese Denon label and then moved over to Decca, where the greater part of his recorded legacy is to be found (his complete Mozart concertos and sonatas for example). The present disc is a very fine document in its own right. Let me point to some of the highlights.

Schumann’s Arabeske is one of the composer’s loveliest creations, and Schiff at once shows his credentials: his warmth, his beautiful tone, his natural phrasing – all the hallmarks of a great artist. At first I thought he was too much on the fast side; even Horowitz is slower. I have always thought that the Arabic flower garlands suggested by the title would produce music that is more slow-motion than this, but he soon won me over. And he is equally good later in the programme, when he returns to Schumann.

As a Hungarian, working with a Hungarian Orchestra and conductor, you would expect him to be cut out for Bartók’s music – and he is. In the first movement of Bartók’s third concerto, he is slower than some, notably Ashkenazy, whose recording with Solti, made around 1980, is my bench-mark. But there is no lack of bite, the balance between soloist and orchestra is first-class, he/they are rhythmically exact and at 3:05, after the French horn solo, Schiff is surprisingly romantic, with sweeping gestures, where Ashkenazy is more strict.

If the angels played other instruments than the harp, I imagine that they would form a piano trio and play Schubert’s "Notturno". This is heavenly music! I think Schubert felt the same, for the piano part is filled with arpeggios, harp imitations. I couldn’t help repeating this track several times and thought – still think – that this can’t be bettered, either as a composition or as an interpretation. The instruments blend to perfection.

Handel’s B flat major suite explores still another side of Schiff’s music-making. Today everybody plays harpsichord music on a concert grand, but 25 years and more ago when the period instrument movement was at its strictest, it was a brave person indeed who did. Schiff did. Here, in a live recording from the Concertgebouw in December 1994, he plays Handel’s Prelude boldly and with a romantic sweep, the Sonata more purely baroque, the Aria is elegant, the Minuet aristocratic and noble.

His fellow-countryman Sándor Veress may not be a household name, but he is considered by many to be the most significant Hungarian composer of the generation following Bartók and Kodály. He studied with both of them and even worked as Bartók’s assistant at the Hungarian Academy of Science in Budapest. Among his own pupils are Ligeti and Kurtág. In 1949 he emigrated and settled in Berne, Switzerland, where he taught at the Conservatory. One of his pupils there was the oboist, composer and, on this disc, conductor, Heinz Holliger, who has championed Veress’s work, both in concert and on records. Veress composed extensively and was partly strongly influenced by folk music (an inheritance from Bartók?) but also strayed into his own personal brand of twelve-tone music.

Hommage à Paul Klee, where Schiff is joined by fellow-pianist Denes Varjon, was written in 1951 and premiered in Berne the following year. It is a substantial work; playing time, according to the score, is 27 minutes, so what we get here is only a snippet, but an agreable one. This is, if anything, neoclassicistic and people who normally fight shy of "modern" music need not fear. This is very accessible. (1951 isn’t really "modern", is it?)

More lovely trio music comes in Mozart’s so called "Kegelstatt-Trio". It is interesting to note that several great composers were at their best when writing for the clarinet. Mozart’s Concerto, Quintet and this Trio were all written near the end of his life; Brahms also discovered the clarinet at the end of his. Once again the playing is marvellous and Schiff is not the star-pianist; he is a fine musician making music with equals.

Smetana’s piano music is rarely heard, but this Polka in G minor is a fine piece of music. It is rather melancholy, but even if the sky is cloudy you feel the sun is there in the background and you imagine a ray breaking through the clouds.

Few composers have written more entertainingly for chamber ensembles than Dvořák. The music may not be “deep” but the combination of melodies, rhythms and sweet melancholy often makes you smile while furtively wiping away a tear. The piano quartet movement played here dances; a soft, lilting waltz. Delicately played!

And what could be a more fitting conclusion to a concert featuring one of the great piano poets of our time than the finale of Beethoven’s loveliest piano concerto, the fourth? Staatskapelle Dresden under Haitink are in their element here, as of course is András Schiff.

A mixed bag it is, but everything is on the highest possible level. I recommend it dearly to anyone interested in top-flight piano-playing: don’t hesitate! The only possible problem is that once you’ve bought the disc you will want the complete works too. In this case there are no problems, because they are available, most of them on the cheap Warner Elatus label.

Göran Forsling


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