MUSIC / A firm grip on Schubert: Adrian Jack reviews Andras Schiff's concert of Schubert piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
WITH HIS Wigmore Hall series surveying important strands in the chamber and solo piano repertoire, Andras Schiff is becoming a musical institution in his own right. He's currently near the end of playing 18 of what he calls the 'more or less complete' works in Schubert's rather confusing legacy of solo piano sonatas. The basis of Schiff's selection is characteristically pragmatic and reasonable; he's not playing fragments either as they remain or in completions by other people.

Each programme ends with what Schiff calls one of Schubert's six late great Sonatas, although 'late' inadequately describes the last three years of a composer who died at the age of only 31, and 'great' begs the question of whether those sonatas are altogether on a higher plane than those which immediately preceded them.

On Wednesday, though, there was a clear distinction between the mighty A major Sonata which Schubert wrote only a few weeks before he died and the two sonatas in the first half of the programme: the little-known Sonata in B major, D 459, which Schubert wrote at the age of 19, and the A minor Sonata, D 537, composed the following year. In a revealing interview in the programme book Schiff gave his opinion that the dramatic outbursts in Schubert's music are exaggerated today: ' . . . after all, we are not barbarians . . . the audience must not be assaulted', and he pointed out that Schubert's music is 'not extrovert but intense'.

If 'intense' means concentrated, then it certainly describes Schiff's approach. Control and even a measure of detachment are always paramount in what he does, so that passion is cooled off into a kind of objective grandeur. In the daunting expanse of the finale of D 960, Schiff's sober steadiness set out the music with impressive certainty, yet no one could be blamed for thinking that the slow movement was a bit economical with feeling, and certainly that the wild storm at its centre was far short of awesome.

Yet with his pointed articulation, Schiff brought a real twinkle-in-the-eye to the scherzo, and he can turn a phrase with an elegant crispness which is entirely his own. Neatness, clarity and absolute confidence in the tempi he sets form the basis of his style. A way of spreading chords and playing the left hand fractionally before the right is 'characteristic' if you like it, a mannerism if you don't.

Playing the Wigmore's new Bosendorfer, Schiff sounded as if he were using very little pedal, and there was none of the clangour which can assail the ears in this very vivid acoustic. He did occasionally have slight trouble in extracting reliable pianissimi but how vividly he orchestrated the main theme and what a good case he put for the piece as a whole - particularly for the capricious, melodious surprises in its final movement.

The earlier E major work was first published as a set of five pieces, and it's not known whether Schubert wanted them all together. Beginning the evening with this somewhat suppositional sonata, Schiff showed a fine ear for 'voicing', or balancing the strands within a fairly simple texture and he made a fair job of untangling Schubert's rather cluttered right hand part in the finals, bizarrely headed Allegro patetico. One could hardly wish for a more consistent and thoughtful advocate for this music.