I had the opportunity of seeing the great Andras Schiff at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing on Saturday, 8 June 2013. To know of Mr. Schiff is to know of his prowess in playing and interpreting Bach and Beethoven; in fact, the first recordings of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues I ever listened to were from the magic hands of Mr. Schiff. As officially written in the concert program, Mr. Schiff played Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Beethoven’s Waldstein, Bartok’s sonata, and Beethoven’s Appassionata. As encores, Mr. Schiff graciously gifted us with five encores: Schumann, Chopin, and Bach.
Being quite nerdy myself, I prepared all the scores to read along as he played. What staggered me most about Mr. Schiff’s playing was his ability to create melodic lines that sang– especially this one passage in which the melody was played entirely by his right hand’s thumb as his top four fingers played accompaniment. The thumb is the most powerful out of all our fingers, and very often, without sufficiently controlling it, it can produce very heavy-handed sounds. Coupled with this amazing technical ability, Mr. Schiff had the incredible sense of knowing what line to emphasize and what to accent, and what would gently murmur in the background or serve as an answer. His understanding of the music is first-rate, and I very much appreciated the intellectual vigor that he imparted to the performance. Everything was precise and deliberate.
Nonetheless, when Mr. Schiff played the large chordal climaxes, he excitedly stomped his feet on the ground or even more disturbing, on the pedals. Of course, I do like it when pianists show their enthusiasm but then sometimes I felt that the stomp distracted and interfered with the diffusion of the chord. Gould has his humming, I suppose Schiff has his stomping. The other issues I had with the performance may be attributed to the piano itself and perhaps even the construction of the performance hall.
This piano concert was the first one I have ever heard played on a Bösendorfer. Having grown up in the United States, I have played and listened to mostly Steinways, and so I looked forward to hearing a Bösendorfer. I had previously heard that the bass on a Bösendorfer was deep and rich– Mr. Schiff was playing Beethoven, and a grumpy composer always requires that resonant bass. While the bass did thunder, it was not clear, especially when he played in the lower register. It seemed like an endless murmur, growl, or whatever Mr. Schiff intended, but I could never pick up the individual notes very well. In Beethoven, despite a tendency towards the lush colors of Romanticism in his later works, clarity of tone is very much key, however thundering it is. The treble half of the keyboard stood in contrast with the bass, it was bright and clear, but unless coaxed a great deal, without sparkling and warmth. Because of this, Bösendorfers are suited to minutely cut pieces that requires technical precision, dexterity and a sensitive touch– exactly Mozart. Immediately after the concert, I googled Bösendorfers and found that the nearly universal opinion is that they are good for small venues and early composers, up until Mozart. That could explain why some of the Bosendorfer’s sound was so lost upon the large hall; it could not project well and it was frequently muddy.
I refuse to believe that Mr. Schiff cannot play with clarity– his Bach encore proved otherwise– the limitations of the hall and piano must have some part in the explanation. If Mr. Schiff were to return with his Bösendorfer to Alice Tully Hall for a program of Bach, I’d surely be in the front rows. Overall, Mr. Schiff gave a tolerable concert in Beijing, displaying exquisite musicianship despite the challenges of performing under those circumstances.
Besides my first time listening to a Bösendorfer in concert, this was my first concert with a mostly Chinese audience as well. Very often, the audience would not wait for the finishing silence before clapping– this is one of my biggest pet peeves. The brief moment of silence is still part of the piece, and until the artist has taken their hands off their instrument or let out a breath, you should not clap. Moreover, during the last encore, a Prelude and Fugue, someone started awkwardly clapping after the Prelude and abruptly stopped. It was quite a pity, because Mr. Schiff had phrased the cadence so much like a question that even I could not help thinking, “Was that really the end? It can’t be!”
After a brief bout, I did not clap for Waldstein, because some of it got on my nerves. My mother continued to clap along with the enthusiastic audience, and she asked me, “Why aren’t you clapping?” Later reflecting on this seemingly inconspicuous statement, I suspect that the Chinese clap because of his reputation and wanting to appear ‘knowledgeable’ about the music and performance etiquette, for the most part not considering how he had actually played. In the end, the Chinese audience showered him with over seven final rounds of applause. This was quite shocking to me as I have seen so many musicians with stellar performances in which most audiences applauded them for less than five times, sometimes without ovation– Leif Oves Andnes, Yo-yo Ma, the Emerson String Quartet, among a few. Additionally, the Chinese audience was sly; they did not give him a standing ovation for the first two encores. When Mr. Schiff returned for a third encore, I thought to myself, he probably means to keep going until he gets an ovation– which he did achieve. His fourth piece was a Bach, and after that I could have lain prostrate at his feet– I stood and clapped and screamed like a terrible fangirl when he headed to play the last Prelude and Fugue encore.
Mr. Schiff, at 59, is still hale. I hope to see him once again.