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András Schiff’s journey through composers’ final thoughts

Sir András Schiff performed a recital presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston Friday at NEC’s Jordan Hall.Robert Torres/Credit: Robert Torres

Among a slew of remarkable moments at Friday’s recital by András Schiff, the most remarkable may have come at the end. Schiff had just delivered insightful and gripping accounts of the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert — a marathon performance lasting nearly two and a half hours. Yet the Hungarian-born pianist returned to the stage as though he’d merely warmed up, and played not one but two encores. Stamina, thy name is Schiff.

The concert’s epic nature lay not just in the temporal but spiritual challenges of exploring these “late works,” a genre to which we reflexively apply a special, rarefied character that doesn’t always fit. Haydn’s last sonata, No. 62 in E-flat, was notable for the ingenuity and wit that permeates most of his mature works; in the first movement, though, chromatic sequences arrive as if from another planet, with unsettling portents.


Beethoven’s C-minor Sonata, Op. 111 reaches more openly for the transcendental. Schiff’s performance of the first movement was a puzzle, as his slow tempos and penchant for hammering out accents gave an oddly heavy-footed impression. But he was revelatory in the finale, playing with brisk tempos and forward momentum that refuted the need to impose profundity on this music from without. It’s profound enough already, Schiff seemed to say. The trills at the end were breathtakingly even.

In Mozart’s D-major Sonata, K. 576, he largely eschewed its quasi-operatic character in favor of restraint, sculpting melodies with pellucid touch and scrupulously balanced dynamics. But it was in Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, D. 960, that the full weight of finality emerged. With astute pedaling, Schiff recreated the sound of the fortepianos he has recently been recording on, and the opening theme was so hushed it seemed hallucinatory, almost unreal. Indeed, the whole performance played like a kind of dream — feverish and haunted at first, then gathering strength and, at the end, determined to embrace life again. It was not to be, of course: Schubert died soon after completing the sonata, but the music lives on as testament to a dream unfulfilled.


And so the encores, the first of which was the slow movement from Schubert’s previous sonata, in A major, one of the 19th century’s most devastating stretches of music. It was brilliantly played but left the audience shrouded in gloom. Perhaps realizing this, Schiff returned to play a brief, serene Adagio by Mozart, originally written for glass harmonica. Here, finally, was a balm for an evening otherwise spent contemplating last things.

András Schiff

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Friday

David Weininger can be reached at