Review: CLASSICAL MUSIC Andrs Schiff/ Schubert Piano Sonatas Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
There could hardly be a more reliable guide through Schubert's Piano Sonatas than Andrs Schiff. In six recitals, on Wednesdays and Saturdays this month, he is playing three sonatas in each programme, including incomplete works, but not movements he considers doubtful. So, in his first recital last Wednesday, he performed only the first two movements of the Sonata in B minor, D566, leaving out another two which Schubert may or may not have intended to go with them. The scent of the lovely second movement, a flowing Allegretto, lingered even after the rest of a substantial evening.

Schiff disregarded, too, the fragmentary third and fourth movements of the Reliquie Sonata in C major, D840, and allowed the austere opening movement and plaintive Andante to rest their case for a work of ambitious vision, suggesting the broad symphonic scope of the contemporary "Great" C Major Symphony and earlier "Unfinished" Symphony. His manner was courtly and classical, presenting the music with a certain detachment, great clarity and an emphasis on its melodic quality, underlined by his habit of delaying the right hand a little. The graceful "gedong" from left to right hand is a stock-in-trade of Schiff's playing.

If Schiff declined to charge the music with subjective feeling, there were still delicious and poetic touches in the well-known Sonata in A minor, D845. He drew a veil over the first movement development, giving it a tentative air of romantic freedom, and at the end of the slow movement, he let the right pedal create a fragile halo of resonance. He clearly enjoyed pointing up flickers of light and shade in the left hand of the finale.

All this would have been ample, but as an encore, Schiff gave an energetic yet distinctly unflustered account of the exhausting "Wanderer" Fantasy. Oddly enough, for a pianist who often plays Schubert on a Bosendorfer, he used the Wigmore's Steinway, though he made it sound a much lighter instrument than usual. On Saturday, for some reason, he brought in a different Steinway, on which he didn't sound altogether happy. In the programme book he expressed a dislike of the left, or "soft" pedal, though it sounded as if he were using it in the second movement of the Sonata in D major, D850. More often, though, he lightened his tone to a mezza voce, which in the finale, and at the start of the Sonata in A minor, D784, seemed a bit under-nourished. He took the finale of the A minor Sonata at a tempo which sounded cautious, presumably so that he didn't have to slow down for the double octaves at the end. When the music was arrested by peremptory chords, then shaken, he fussed the faster notes petulantly, and a similar tendency to worry rhythmic values in a mannered way spoilt the good-natured ramble which ends D850. The recital started decorously with the rather dull surviving three movements of the Sonata in C major, D279, which somehow set the mood for an evening which found Schiff at his least poised, though still able to rely on his formidable technical and intellectual reserves. Schiff on a not-so-good night is still a good deal better than most. Series continues: 8pm Wed; Sat 15; Wed 19; Sat 22 Feb, Wigmore Hall, London, W1 (0171-935 2141)