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S & H Recital Review

Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti,Chopin Andras Schiff (piano) Wigmore Hall,13 December 2001 &10 January 2002 (PGW)

Bach, J S

Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV894 Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor BWV903 (1709)


Rondo in A minor K511 Menuett K576/b Gigue K574 Variations K500

Scarlatti, D

Sonatas in C Kk420/421 E minor Kk394/395 G minor Kk426/427 Eb Kk474/475 G Kk449/450 B Kk544/545


Ballade nos 1 - 4; Nocturnes in E flat op 9 no 2 / F op 15 no 1; Berceuse in D flat op 57; Etude in E op 10 no 3; Scherzo no 1 in B minor op 20/no 2 in B flat minor op 31/3 in C sharp minor/4 in E op 54


Andras Schiff's reputation has ensured full houses, with standing, for his Chopin and his Idols programmes. Their prime critical importance lies in the two pianos played, which brought audiences, most of whom were probably uninvolved in the 'authentic instrument' controversies, face to face with thinking about possible alternatives to the ubiquitous Steinway. As Schiff put it, with gentle good humour, we have been brainwashed into taking for granted that pianos should always be black and made by Steinway. Excellent though those are, they are not ideal for all music and he deplores the covering up of natural wood colours. "The Wigmore Hall used to be called the Bechstein Hall - when did we last hear a Bechstein, Bösendorfer or Ibach here?"

It was indeed a Steinway, though a very unusual one, which Schiff played for the classical halves of his programmes. With the name of the Italian Steinway agent and technician Fabbrini painted boldly on the side, it had a dry, bright quality which suited well the Mozart pieces and especially his sparkling Scarlatti selection - isn't it amazing how well Scarlatti's sonatas sound whether on harpsichord or on piano, and interpreted very variously by numerous pianists from Horowitz to Perahia (my own favourite a double CD by Pletnev, probably n.l.a.) - an inexhaustible mine of imagination and invention. On 10 January, Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was played straightforwardly, sparing the pedal and without such subtle nuances that Angela Hewitt draws from Steinway - hers the justly admired 'Bach flavour of the turn of the century' for that repertoire. Schiff's Mozart was a little straight-laced; the Variations in Bb (Tudor 7019) less alluring than Gilbert Schuchter achieves on a Bösendorfer in the revelatory complete recording of Mozart's solo piano music with which he followed that of Schubert's; both boxes that I cannot urge too highly.

For Chopin, Andras Schiff changed to a beautiful, rich brown Pleyel of 1860, which had been restored and prepared by the same Fabbrini, with his name rather tastelessly displayed on the side - unfortunately, Schiff did not, in his all too brief talk, go into detail about either instrument, beyond saying that he hadn't been playing Chopin for many years, had felt the usual Steinways were 'not ideal' and that this Pleyel/Fabbrini instrument had 'opened new worlds' for him.


On 13 December I had small reservations in the large, dramatic Chopin works, in which he seemed to be still feeling his way, and we with him, but none for the nocturne and waltzes which he played as encores; no question that the unusual sounds and balance between registers made you listen with a particular intentness. On 10 January I felt a greater assurance in Schiff's deeply satisfying sequence of Ballades & Scherzi (two of each as before, broken up this time with an Etude and the Berceuse) and rather wished he had used the Pleyel for the whole recital.

It is all credit to Andras Schiff that he remains loyal to the relatively small Wigmore Hall, ideal for the sound qualities he seeks to share. I anticipate a recording project to follow this series, and you might be able to get returns to catch the final programme on February 14/15.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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