A Week in Music
Clinch, Dermot, New Statesman (1996)
Andras Schiff comes to the Festival Hall this week. The Hungarian pianist, to quote the South Bank Centre quoting the Financial Times, is "one of the great naturals of the piano", a performer who gives "pleasure in a fleeting scale". The pappy critical comments are, in fact, from the Observer, were written by me, and I stand by them.
Schiff is going to do what they're calling a Mozart piano concerto "cycle". Sorry to take issue with them a second time, but what do they mean? Schiff will be playing Mozart's last six concertos. The prospect is of great music and great music-making. But he's not playing all 21 so isn't, surely, playing a cycle. Schubert's songs and Monet's waterlilies - where artistic unity was foreseen - are cycles. A handful of concertos isn't. The word has become debased and it was only recently, reading how Sylvester Stallone had taken a breather "from his Rocky cycle", that I realised how seriously.
I've been limbering up for Schiffs concerts with his Mozart recordings for Decca. That "pleasure in a fleeting scale" business is apt here, for how much of Mozart is scales and arpeggios, the hand flying up and down, making patterns emotionally resonant ones, but patterns all the same? As Charles Rosen has written, the C major concerto K503 opens with material "not even sufficiently characterised to be called banal". Mozart's genius is to do great things with banality. Thus a performer whose worst sin is to kick the musical accents with Magyar zeal and make the music live dangerously is no disadvantage.
Like Murray Perahia or the elusive Pole Krystian Zimerman, coming to the Festival Hall in June, Schiff belongs to a group of pianists who devote their energies to keeping dead composers alive. Most classical composers are dead, so it's laudable and understandable. On an admirable new CD Schiff performs the service for Robert Schumann. Microphones are close enough to hear the bony rattle of nail on ivory, but the sound is otherwise wonderful. There's Kreisleriana, Schumann's fantasy on ideas from E T Hoffmann, and three rarities: the dark, severe Nachtstucke, the later Gesange Fruhe after ideas from Holderlin and the Geister-Variationen, "Spirit Variations", after ideas from angelic voices.
Schumann, in the late stages of syphilis, believed the angels had brought him the theme, though he had used it before. …