Sam Smith experiences the intensity of live music once more with this solo piano recital at Wigmore Hall.
While we all look forward to the return of packed concert halls, there is something particularly special about attending the Wigmore Hall during these socially distanced times. As a mere hundred audience members (the ‘chosen few’) dutifully make their way into the hall and sit quietly in their allocated places before the proceedings begin, everyone is reminded of just how precious live music is. Dimmed auditorium lights and the absence of programmes (to prevent the spread of infection) encourage focus on the evening’s performer in every way, but the final element that ensured this concert was so spellbinding was the approach of Sir András Schiff himself. To play continuously for a hundred minutes at a level that made the journey feel nowhere near that length made for the most captivating, illuminating and frequently breathtaking experience.
To describe Schiff’s playing as impeccably balanced would be true but misleading as it might imply that everything is simply kept on an even keel. Schiff, on the other hand, can actually emphasise certain extremes by knowing how not to make them feel so excessive, so that the disparate elements in each piece are brought out in such a way as to create the most coherent, and exciting, whole. Such qualities were in evidence from the outset as the evening began with Book I of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. The opening ‘Naše večery’ (Our Evenings) was characterised by a solidity concerning technique and formal requirements, but also positively tingled. Schiff’s playing was also wonderfully evocative so that one could really feel a blown-away leaf in ‘Lístek odvanutý’, the jollity that accompanies the invitation ‘Pojďte s námi!’ (Come With Us!) and the reverence owed to the ‘Frýdecká panna Maria’ (The Madonna of Frydek). There also felt something suitably leaden about the tone in ‘Nelze domluvit!’ (Words Fail!), while even if no one knew anything about ‘Sýček neodletěl!’ other than it notes that the barn owl has not flown away, one would have grasped the significance of that fact.
“…everyone is reminded of just how precious live music is”
Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (Dances of the League of David) are musical dialogues about contemporary music between two characters, Florestan and Eusebius, with each of the eighteen ‘dances’ being ascribed to one or both of them. The notion of a dialogue, and of the associated sides to Schumann’s own nature (in being impetuous on the one hand, and poetic and lyrical on the other) were conveyed extremely effectively. The virtual alternation of major and minor keys in the opening six or so dances was also maximised upon so that hearing the B minor ‘Innig’ after the ‘Lebhaft’ in G major felt particularly moving.
Janáček’s Sonata I.X.1905 ‘From the Street’, comprising two movements (a third was destroyed before the piece was ever performed), is a tribute to the worker František Pavlík, who on 1 October 1905 was bayoneted during demonstrations in support for a Czech university in Brno. Again, Schiff’s ability to convey so many elements and emotions in his playing was in evidence and one could not believe that the opening ‘Předtucha’ (Foreboding) could feel as free flowing in some places as it felt intense in others. As we then moved to ‘Smrt’ (Death) the playing seemed paradoxically both calmer and bolder as we could feel genuinely sickened at several points, and all range of emotions as the movement reached its most powerful moments.
Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, which concluded the programme, was also perfect for revealing both Schiff’s technical skill and his ability to capture the entire sweep of a piece. The composition includes such demands as rapid skips in opposite directions simultaneously in the second movement’s coda, but Schiff’s mastery of the work meant that the playing came across as divine, even in those places where that is not the quality that it would seem most obvious to seek. There was no encore, but after such an intense experience it would have felt inappropriate to round off the evening with something short and light. In the hands of Schiff, the programme as it stood felt complete in every way.
This recital was broadcast live online and, as with all current Wigmore Hall concerts, will remain available to watch for thirty days.