A colleague recently called András Schiff "the best pianist in the world". Surely there are other big names in the topnotch category, though as some have never been here (Maurizio Pollini, Krystian Zimerman), we lack live comparisons; and one of the best is about to come here: Arcadi Volodos. Anyway, Schiff is certainly a sure candidate for such a ranking, although I believe it is a dangerous proposition, for there are many subjective factors as well as the measurable, objective ones. You may prefer the flashy to the introspective, the great Lisztian rather than the great Schubertian, and that´s certainly legitimate; but some players have been able to tackle those extremes with equal felicity (Brendel, for one).
Anyway, I´m completely sure that Schiff´s recent recital for the Abono del Bicentenario at the Colón was a memorable event. "A celebrant of music", that´s the title I chose: indeed, the serenity and conviction with which he transmits his interpretations accomplish a phenomenon of intimate empathy with non-frivolous and sensitive listeners such as is very rarely felt. Schiff was here before: a recital and Beethoven´s "Emperor Concerto"; I was vividly impressed then, but I liked the current concert even more (it´s silly that the former visit isn´t mentioned in the hand programme).
He has an enormous repertoire encompassing, e.g., most of J.S. Bach and the Beethoven complete Sonatas . Now he played a fascinating combination of four sonatas: Beethoven´s Nº 30, Bartók´s only one, Janácek´s (called "1/X/1905") and Schubert´s Nº 18, D.894, "Fantasy". The interval came after Janácek and not before as the programme had it. I would have preferred Bartók ending the First Part, for it has a galvanizing third movement, but it is typical of Schiff´s personality that he finished with a movement called "Death-Adagio" (a dirge to the memory of a murdered worker whilst promoting the creation of a Czech university in Brno).
Schiff has stated that the last movement of Beethoven´s Sonata Nº 30 (a metaphysical Theme and Variations) is the one he likes best in the whole immense corpus. After a gossamer first movement and a flying Prestissimo (in which for the only time in the whole evening I noticed very slight imperfections) the final movement proceeded like a progress into the higher spheres, with the control of a past master in execution and the comprehension of a very wise man.
Bartók´s tough Sonata was played with marvelous precision, its relentessly rhythmic organisation fully revealed; I personally prefer a bigger sound in this music, such as other illustrious Hungarians provided: Andor Foldes, György Sandor; but this is a matter of taste. Janácek´s sonata, so characteristic of his inimitable style, was left incomplete because the composer destroyed the third movement; he also liquidated the other two, but fortunately Ludmila Tuckova had copied them, and thus it was premiered in 1924. I admire such artists as Radoslav Kvapil and Rudolf Firkusny in this fiercely personal music, but Schiff gave me even more of its essential nature.
I´ve had a soft spot for Schubert´s Sonata Nº 18, D. 894, "Fantasy", ever since I got hold of a lovely record by Henri Jolles back in 1956. It is very much a piece for convinced schubertians in its utter lack of effects, blissful lyricism and spontaneous flow. I disagree with Schiff (as I did with Lang Lang in Sonata Nº 21) in that both make the repeat of the exposition; alas, the result is that the first movement lasts as much as the other three together and thus the work feels unbalanced. Yes, I know, Schubert marks it, as was the use of his time, but the exposition is very long, and the music quite slow, especially as the second movement also is slow. Nevertheless, such was the mesmerizing concentration , beauty and perfection of Schiff´s playing that the whole Sonata was irresistible.
Some people put the accent on a few cellular phones and coughs, and of course they are right in deploring them, but Schiff remained composed and smiling, and the ovations were interminable after such intimate music, so it wasn´t a bad audience after all. And the artist was generous: four splendid encores, including the only Chopin and Bach we have heard from him in BA. A pearly execution of Schubert´s Impromptu Op.90 Nº 2; his exquisite traversal of Chopin´s Nocturne Op. 15 Nº 2 showed that the Romantic sensibility is literally at the tip of his fingers; the late Beethoven Bagatelle Op.126 Nº 4 was played with appropriate quirkiness and lightning passages from forte to piano; and Bach´s third movement from the Italian Concerto demonstrated the pianist´s magnificent contrapuntal command and independence of hands.
The Colón´s piano is long due for a replacement; how is it possible that an institution handling over 250 million pesos a year can´t budget the cost of a new first-rate Steinway? It is really shameful to bring such artists as Schiff and not give them a quality instrument. Especially when the prices of that Abono are ridiculously high (much more than the Salzburg Festival!) and that students are hurriedly placed in the hall at the last minute ( I know, I´ve seen them) to make it look as a soldout house. Policies at the Colón need a thorough revision. Schiff is a gentleman, not like Jarrett who protested loudly, but both merit fine pianos to play.
For Buenos Aires Herald