For his recital Saturday night at the Perelman Theater, pianist András Schiff had his Bösendorfer turned slightly, the better to see his hands at work upon the keyboard. The unusual angle struck me as something of a joke, since, really, there is little in the way of physical evidence pointing to what makes him such an unusual musician.
The magic, in fact, was more discernible if you averted your eyes altogether. Schiff, probably the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s most starry name this season, brought a program similar to the one he plays Tuesday night in Carnegie Hall. The audience-friendly keyboard angle did allow him a measure of control over his listeners. Hands were suspended in the air after each piece, dropping for the next work after a nanosecond, preventing applause and creating two seamless program halves.
A substantive connection between pieces was debatable. But the two solid panels of music did create an immersive experience, a kind of musical altarpiece – to Schiff. And the audience was rapt. The pianist rewarded them with an 11-minute encore: Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother.
Schiff wove a program of standards – Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart – and his own playing gathered interpretive depth as it went on. The Three Intermezzos, Opus 117 of Brahms had a glassy beauty, and the third in the set was delicately rendered. But it was all within a certain expressive range. In Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, you wondered what a composer would have to write to get a rise out of Schiff, so carefully controlled it was. Schiff was more tip-toe diplomat than prodding interrogator.
His way with the Six Piano Pieces, Opus 118 by Brahms was decidedly not ecstatic in the opening, but the chill of death was upon the last of the pieces in a way I won’t soon forget.
No one has worked out the details of a piece the way Schiff has, a quality that swelled intensity by several degrees in the program’s second “set.” Listening to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B Minor was like watching a multi-dimensional puzzle being assembled in real time. Schiff’s sense of voicing (creating a hierarchy from among simultaneous multiple musical lines) dovetailed in a gorgeously complex way with the Bösendorfer’s colors: plummy French horns in the middle register, muted trumpets above, tuba below. Brahms’ Four Piano Pieces, Opus 119 were studies in the power of articulation and textures to conjure character. The waltz-like music in the second was as a gauzy dream.
The last piece seemed to arrive as an apotheosis. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Flat Major, Opus 81a, “Les Adieux,” is a concentrated experience, and Schiff’s meticulous detailing was firmly in place, but always at the service of fluidity and those incredible moments of helium where a phrase lifts off. Schiff pointed to ideals and values well beyond the page, to liberation itself. Here was music most ecstatic.