This past Friday evening at Spivey Hall, Hungarian-born British pianist András Schiff performed a solo recital of music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach for the venue’s Walter and Emilie Spivey Memorial Concert. The thoughtfully crafted program of core Germanic piano repertoire was engaging from start to finish, with Schiff’s astute performance ranging from a fluid, graceful lyricism to a lively, spirited virtuosity, forceful when it needed to be but without artificial bombast.
Schiff opened the program with the “Fantasy” in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, by Felix Mendelssohn, a fine example of the composer’s flexibly virtuosic writing for piano. Although originally titled “Sonata écossaise” (“Scottish Sonata”) when he first composed it in 1828, before traveling to Scotland the next year, he changed the name to “Fantasy” after some revisions and before it was finally published in 1834. Despite the outer movements being in sonata form, the first somewhat loosely, with a scherzo in between, the “Fantasy” title seems more apt. Without any hint of indigenous Scottish music, the piece is redolent of a kind of dark and melancholic air associated with Scottish Romanticism, its simple melodies rolled together with free-wheeling flourishes, and increasing pace and intensity felt almost narrative in character.
That the Fantasy’s energized final movement played off between the parallel modes of major and minor on the tonal center of F-sharp somewhat foreshadowed the next piece on the docket, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78. A mere 10 minutes long, with only two movements, this concise, lyrical sonata, which as one of the composer’s own favorites, was often overlooked by 19th-century pianists, reclaiming its deserved attention and respect of performers in the 20th century.
That it is in the unusual key of F-sharp major made it feel all the more natural to follow Mendelssohn’s F-sharp minor “Fantasy,” and Schiff did not waste time between the pieces with stage exits and entrances in this concert, rather giving due acknowledgment to the audience’s applause then sitting down and digging into the next piece, which enhanced the flow of the program with its well-planned key relationships between pieces.
Indeed, the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76 of Johannes Brahms began with a Capriccio in F-sharp minor, although the set winded through pieces with an array of keys in its tonally shifting but flowing course, winding up with a final Capriccio in C major — though it is clear the eight short works, evenly divided between faster Capriccios and slower, more lyrical Intermezzos, need not be played as a complete set, but lifted from the group for performance as individual pieces. Still, they are quite effective performed as a whole, as they were under Schiff’s hands and thoughtful insight on Friday.
After intermission came a shift in focal key-center to D minor, with Schiff bringing forth more Brahms to the stage, his “Seven Fantasies,” Op. 116. Comprising Capriccios and Intermezzos like the Op. 76 Eight Pieces, but published 13 years later, this autumnal set, with its well-ordered contrasts of mood within and between adjacent pieces, is more clearly inspired to be played as a set, although they are just as worthy as individual pieces. Brahms keeps the music alive through his occasionally polysemantic harmonic progressions that at last resolve at the end of a piece — a great example being the set’s penultimate number, an Intermezzo in E minor. Schiff gave this slightly more mature set a rendering of depth and beauty that complemented well that of the Op. 76.
Slightly surprising was the ease with which the Brahms pieces were followed by Johann Sebastian Bach’s English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811. Written for harpsichord, Schiff’s performance was unabashedly for the modern piano, at once warm and lucid, with nicely colored voicing throughout its varied dances. With the final Gavottes, Schiff brought the well-polished suite to a brilliant, joyfully rollicking finish.
To cap the evening, the seemingly indefatigable Schiff returned to the stage to play not one but a total of three delightful encores: two of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” followed by an exceptionally intimate rendering of the “Aria” from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”