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SCRUTINY | Sir András Schiff Makes A Stunning Return To Koerner Hall

By Joseph So on November 7, 2023

Sir András Schiff (Photo: Royal Conservatory of Music/Koerner Hall/Lisa Sakulensky)
Sir András Schiff (Photo: Royal Conservatory of Music/Koerner Hall/Lisa Sakulensky)

Bach: Prelude & Fugue in C Major; Capriccio in B Flat Major; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor; Haydn: Variations in F Minor; Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze; Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses; Beethoven: Sonata no. 17 “The Tempest”; Encore: Schubert: Hungarian Melody in B Minor. Sir András Schiff, Koerner Hall, November 5, 2023.

Brilliant. Mesmerizing. Idiosyncratic. Mercurial. Four adjectives that come easily to mind when describing the great Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff — oh yes, add great to the list. Having attended many of his recitals, I can honestly say a Sir Andras recital is never boring. He is now called Sir, as he is a knighted British citizen of Hungarian parentage.

Schiff can be unpredictable. I was in the audience many years ago when he stunned everyone by walking off-stage in the middle, only to return with a bottle of water for a front-row gentleman whose coughing was bothering the pianist. Others have seen him telling the audience off for making too much noise or walking in and out.

Thankfully, his return to Koerner Hall on Sunday was all sunshine and smiles. It was a full house, packed to the rafters including the choir loft and stage seats. Sold out concerts are rare in post-Pandemic times, and tickets for this concert were quite pricey. Yet there was no a seat to be had, a testament to his drawing power.

There was zero programme information before the concert. I was expecting at least an insert, but there was absolutely nothing. It turned out that Schiff wanted to introduce each work to the audience — and I paraphrase: “…some people plan the programme two years in advance, very predictable…I want spontaneity!” At times, I felt like I was in a musicology course I took as an undergraduate!

His first piece, the Bach Prelude and Fugue from the Well tempered Clavier Book 1, didn’t have his customary refined expressivity and sheen. I thought to myself — hmmm, what’s happening? It was foolish of me to worry, as he was just warming up. For the rest of the recital, it was vintage Andras Schiff. I was blown away by his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, played more romantically than I have ever heard.

All in all, it was an extraordinarily generous programme of Bach, Haydn, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schubert. After having played for nearly an hour in the first half, he announced his next piece was Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. I thought he was just doing a selection, but he played all 30 minutes of it. The first half ending up nearly an hour and a half.

The second half was a bit shorter, but just as marvellous, beginning with Mendelssohn, whom he called “underrated,” an adjective he also applied to Haydn. He played Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses with clarity and economy, quite a contrast to the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. In fact, everything he did this afternoon was just exemplary — I was totally blown away by the Beethoven “Tempest” sonata, a felicitous balance of power and lyricism. When Schiff is on, nobody can beat him.

After such a huge programme, the grateful audience gave him tidal waves of ovations. He rewarded us with Schubert’s Hungarian Melody in B Minor — including the little aside that “…Schubert was no Hungarian…” That said, he probably would agree that Schubert captures beautifully the folksy spirits of Hungarian Gypsies.
A marvellous end to a recital destined for the memory bank.

Schiff has already played in Koerner Hall half a dozen times. Despite looking a bit superannuated both in appearance and body language, Schiff is only 69 and still at the height of his pianistic powers. Let’s hope he’ll continue to return for another half a dozen times at least, and entertain us with his brilliant artistry and inimitable stage persona.

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Joseph So
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