Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Schubert piano pieces

4 Impromptus D. 899
6 Moments Musicaux D. 780
3 Klavierstücke D. 946
[4 Impromptus D. 935]

András Schiff (piano)
Wigmore Hall, 14 May 2008

This recital which is to be repeated tonight (hot tickets, sold out twice!) was woefully misconceived. The first "half" was an endurance test, given perversely straight through without even pauses between items within the sets such as one expects between CD tracks; Schiff did the same at Wigmore Hall with Beethoven's last three sonatas.

Those thirteen Schubert pieces lasted 1 hr 28 mins, after which some of us could not take four more Impromptus by everyone's favourite composer, even after an interval and mindful of Schumann's 'confident assertion that the D.995 set was really a sonata in disguise' [Misha Donat].

Donat reminds us in his commentary (a pity that Schiff did not provide his own notes) that Schubert encountered resistance from publishers to large scale instrumental works, and that the public taste c. 1826 had turned against "sonatas". The next year Haslinger published D.894 as a "Fantasy, Andante, Menuetto & Allegretto" with the now unfashionable word 'sonata' conspicuously absent, as likewise in my old Peters edition. Schubert went along with this and was happy to have his D 899 labelled as "Impromptus".

The first begins with an expansive, serious sonata-form movement which got András Schiff's recital off to a good start. The rot set in quickly with the popular favourite in Eb; instead of allowing the unending triplet quavers to ripple "like glistening pearls" (AW) as is more usual, Schiff sought out a left hand melody to emphasise (there isn't one). More problems followed in the heavenly Gb (transposed to G major and with bar-lengths halved in my copy; ostensibly to make it easier, but not so - marked "this version should not be used"!). The murmuring accompaniment was all too solid - ought one to hear every note? - and the melody began to show a problem with the treble register of Schiff's chosen instrument for these recitals. Though I am generally a staunch admirer of András Schiff and applaud his contention that pianos should not "always be black and made by Steinway - - ", the Bösendorfer's tone was curiously clouded and lacklustre. I did not have a score with me, so won't attempt detailed comments about more of Schiff's interpretative decisions through the long programme.*

What gradually came to dominate my listening was the realisation that most of the pieces constituting this ill advised programming comprise innumerable unaltered sectional repeats, those of smaller phrases and, eventually, reprises of the first parts. Some of the contrasting material seemed oddly arbitary - contrast for the sake of it. Most of this music was, dare one say, relatively simple, a lot of it slow or very slow; fine for first time hearers, but not so for music one has come to know well and that most amateur pianists will be familiar with at the keyboard.

The Momens musicals (as titled in pidgin-French) were composed at varous times from 1823 to 1827 and came out in print in miscellaneous albums of piano music. Would that we had heard them given in that context - it would have made for a more entertaining and illuminating event (q.v. Peter Sheppard Skarvaed's series of the Beethoven violin sonatas presented in their social and musical context). I got to know the Ab Impromptu from the first set (the one with the cascading semiquaver arpeggios) when a very small boy, betraying my dawning musicality by sitting on the floor next to the piano and insisting that my mother played me again and again that particular piece from her album of piano pieces popular at the time and now almost forgotten (Sinding's Rustle of Spring etc were others).

The solemn ritual character of this András Schiff Wigmore Hall recital seemed worlds away from how the music must have been given and enjoyed in and around Schubert's own time. Last night's mostly elderly audience enjoyed the event and I heard two say that they would be coming again to the second performance tonight - they, and many others, will doubtless look out for the CDs which I anticipate will follow.

Salieri was definitely not murdered by Mozart. Schiff, by his programming, made a fair bid to spoil for me some of the most popular and loveable piano music by one of my favourite composers.

Musical Pointers will, as always, welcome other responses?

Peter Grahame Woolf

* q.v. Mark Berry for Music Web who was likewise disenchanted with Schiff's inconsiderate programme planning. PGW