Friday night Andras Schiff played his fourth engagement for the
For ECM he has begun a Beethoven sonata project that will occupy him for the next several years; he's recording the sonatas live, and in chronological order. The first two-CD set is just out. Naturally Beethoven figured on his program Friday night, but Schiff wasn't mercenary: He chose two he hasn't yet arrived at in the recording process, No. 16, in G Major, and the ''Waldstein." The CDs capture music that is thoughtful, incisive, and a bit didactic in a way that recalls Alfred Brendel -- a ''lecture recital" in which the lecture about what the music means arrives in the form of the playing itself.
There were hints of that quality in Friday night's Beethoven, particularly in the deliberate, even ponderous, basic tempos he chose for the finales of both sonatas. And the one quality that Schiff lacks is spontaneity, or even creating the illusion of it. That said, his playing was on an exceptionally high musical, intellectual, and pianistic level. His running leaps across all the famous hurdles in the ''Waldstein" didn't topple a single one, and grazed only a few; the octave glissandos in the last movement were elegant and mysterious, not a technical feat or a freak show. The sonata is sometimes offered as pure sunshine; the French nickname for it is ''The Dawn." Schiff's take on the music was more complex, full of violent contrasts and jabbing accents. He seemed to have a lot of fun in the earlier sonata, which is a kind of comic opera for piano, with a long, sighing diva aria in the middle; by the end of the finale, Schiff had the audience laughing out loud.
Schiff paired the Beethoven works with works by Haydn -- a ''Capriccio" based on a folk song about how to castrate pigs; the E-Minor Sonata, No. 53: and the glorious F-Minor Variations. Schiff's playing was polished, lucid, witty, and in the Variations, touching. Maybe he needs to let the music breathe more in passages built on vocal models, but the nimble-fingered lightness of the sonata finale was delightful.
There were two encores, a Schubert dance, and the big F-Minor Impromptu, which Schiff delivered with an unassuming virtuosity that was totally dedicated to making music.