MUSIC / Schiff reaches the parts of Schubert . . .

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The Independent Culture
THE YEAR 1975 was a good one for the Leeds Piano Competition and a bad one for Andras Schiff, who found himself competing against the exceptional odds of Mitsuko Uchida and Dmitri Alexeev, and as a consequence took third prize instead of first. But genius will out; and in the past couple of decades Schiff has proved himself at least the equal of any Leeds winner - not so obviously as a concerto player, but certainly as a recitalist and chamber musician. He is surely among the most gifted Bach interpreters of modern times (even allowing that his playing style is founded and dependent on a modern concert grand, it has an authority that transcends questions of period performance). And while he may not be a face to launch a thousand record sleeves, his achievements have established a clear enough artistic personality to win him the title Instrumentalist of the Year in the first International Classical Music Awards, announced in Birmingham on Friday.

At the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday, Schiff began a six-concert series of the complete Schubert piano sonatas and reminded a capacity audience of what makes him so remarkable. He has done this sort of thing before with Mozart and Haydn. But to carry the series concept through to Schubert is more problematic, because the very idea of 'complete' Schubert piano sonatas is false; Schubert did not complete them. From a total of 21 works catalogued as such, only 15 survive in finished form. The rest are fragmentary, and the player has to judge for himself what is or is not performable within the canon.

Schiff takes a rather strict line on this, and only programmes movements that see through their argument to the end. So, we had the Moderato and Andante of the C Major Sonata D840 but not the stumps of the Minuetto and Rondo that follow; the Moderato and Allegretto of the early E Minor Sonata D566, but not the Scherzo and questionable concluding Allegretto. Interesting fragments he plays as encores: Wednesday's was the opening of the F sharp Minor which stops disturbingly in mid-phrase as though the author, his invention, his energy or something died at that point.

But these sonatas were not dictated by Schubert on his death- bed. He probably abandoned them because he was not happy with their quality and/or because there was no prospect of publication; and in the case of D840, quality was almost certainly the issue. It is a sister piece to the A Minor Sonata D845, also heard here, which uses similar ideas more productively; and it was the fitter sibling that survived.

A series like this offers a chance to recreate the competitive relationships that exist between such sibling scores. You can discern relative values and perhaps approach an understanding of why Schubert put his pen down in mid-manuscript. And Schiff is a superlative guide to the mental processes in operation. His performance was not technically as clean as his reputation promises, and although the Bosendorfer sounded closer to a Viennese fortepiano than a Steinway would, it also had a dull tone that made vibrantly assertive statements hard to bring off.

However, these were performances of wonderful intelligence, controlled across a full dynamic range to the utmost pianissimo but without exaggeration or tricky eccentricities. Every every shift in the melodic or harmonic focus was presented clearly, with a careful balancing of voices in the texture. And the sense of a continuing argument sustained between contrasted episodes gave, like his split-hair pauses between movements, a coherent bonding to unfinished work. Full of insight, it amounted to a high- wire act, suspended between pre- determined logic and surprise. In my view that ranks Schiff with the outstanding Schubert pianists of our day, with Brendel, Lupu, Ashkenazy and Pollini; and it would make his Wigmore series unmissable - but for the fact that it is sold out.

Outside London the big event was Opera North's new production of Don Carlos, which opened at the Grand Theatre in Leeds on Friday and raised another debate about 'completeness' in that it opted for the shortened four-act version. Verdi originally wrote it as a five-acter for Paris, but cut it down to a more manageable scale for Milan - only to complicate matters further by subsequently authorising (it seems) a different five-act version. So directors and conductors have a choice; and the recent tendency (at ENO, for instance) has been to go big rather than small, in the interests of hearing every note that Verdi left.

Opera North goes small, in the interests of dramatic urgency and coherence. The staging starts where it ends: in Spain, at the tomb of Charles V, with no preliminary romantic dalliance in France. Tim Albery's production keeps the focus tight. Hildegard Bechtler's starkly oppressive sets - the thick, high walls of a monastically enclosed court opening out as the contained emotions of the plot rise to the surface - are highly effective. Although there is no spectacle, not even for the oddly cheerful burning-of-the- heretics scene, the weight of the drama registers with tremendous force, bulwarked by some remarkable orchestral playing under Paul Daniel, who is becoming a formidable Verdi conductor. It seemed to me exactly how a modest house with a restricted stage should tackle such a mighty work.

As for the singing, Don Carlos never was a score that threw its weight behind the title role, which is as well, for this Carlos is weak: a wandering warbler of a tenor, Richard Burke, who needs more oxygen at high altitude. But the part that really counts, Philip II, is superbly taken by John Tomlinson, a starry Bayreuth Wotan proving by his loyalty to Leeds what a significant production house Opera North has become. As Philip, he whitens his voice, an old man frozen into the burden of kingship, self-repressively aloof. His confrontations with the Grand Inquisitor (Richard Van Allan) and the Marquis of Posa (Anthony Michaels-Moore) are electrifying. Michaels-Moore reconstructs Posa, that old-fashioned reminder of early Verdian heavy friendship figures, into something ardent, youthfully high-principled, refreshingly well- sung. With good support from Claire Powell as Eboli and Linda McLeod as Elisabeth, this Carlos kicks the new year's opera powerfully into touch.