The pianists and their fans all turned out for what was surely the solo piano event of the season last Friday night: an all-Beethoven recital by virtuoso Andr¡s Schiff. Schiff, who is in the midst of a very challenging project involving the performance and recording of all of Beethoven’s piano pieces, played the three sonatas of Opus 10-No. 5 in C Minor, No. 6 in F Major, and No. 7 in D Major-all before the interval, and then returned for the Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 13, “Pathetique.” His playing was exquisite throughout, demonstrating not only the extraordinary technical skill of a master pianist at his height, but also the insight and imagination of someone who has devoted considerable intellectual energy to unraveling the dense fabric of Beethoven’s thoughts.
In a light blue vest and black tie, Schiff was the picture of classical propriety as he took the stage. But less than 10 minutes into the opening movement of Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, the audience knew that his would not be an overly regimented approach to the music. Sonata No. 6 in F Major is a more playful work, but in Schiff’s hands it nevertheless implied great depths of feeling. Of the many great benefits of hearing this music played by a pianist as gifted as Schiff, the most seemingly paradoxical is the pure experience of sound it allows. Notes on a piano are heard in context; they sound the way they do because of what surrounds them. Beethoven’s sonatas, properly performed, set up these contrasting contexts so effectively that the brighter passages ring out more brilliantly than any other music. Consequently, when shadows fall-as they do in both the No. 7 in D Major and No. 8 Pathetique-they do so in a way that rouses the emotions.
The Pathetique sonata is one of the most popular of Beethoven’s works among serious amateur musicians, and many audience members brought the special attention of trained performers to bear on Schiff’s remarkable rendition. A lovely encore taken from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and it was over. The rest is silence.