This recital focused on four “last” piano sonatas, all by essential composers — Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert. Far from being a lugubrious affair of funereal final statements, the program showed Sir András Schiff at his most commanding, his most searching, and his most beguiling best. By the time he returned to the Lobero stage to play one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as an encore, the audience had made a dramatic and monumental journey with him through the highest peaks of the solo piano repertoire.
Haydn never fails to restore my faith in the musical imagination, and Schiff’s deft, subtly expressive reading of Haydn’s Sonata in E Flat Major, Hob. XVI/52, L.62 was no exception. Bold, witty, and technically demanding, it foreshadowed the deeper shadows to come. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 remains endless to contemplation. Hearing it again, especially in Schiff’s sure hands, is all the third movement any sane person could desire. Mozart started the Sonata No. 18 in D Major, K. 576 as a vanity piece for the princess of Prussia, but she never saw the score. As with all the other works on this program, it belongs solidly to the exodus of the sonata from within the reach of amateur pianists.
Schiff has been playing Schubert’s sonatas for decades, but in a recent series of concerts in London and elsewhere in the spring and summer of this year, he has been using an extraordinary period instrument, the Brodmann fortepiano, a fully restored example of the kind of keyboard just coming into prominence when Schubert was composing this sonata in the 1820s. It’s impossible to know if this change of heart about period instruments — Schiff has in the past denigrated period “specialists” — has necessarily been the catalyst, but this performance of Schubert’s last sonata, the sprawling Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960, was extraordinary, and spiritual in the extreme. All kinds of new direction in music were explored, and we heard it played as well as it is possible to be played.