András Schiff can come across as one of classical piano's deepest-dyed traditionalists. The 62-year-old Hungarian has spent decades focusing on a core repertoire spanning Scarlatti and Bach through Beethoven and Schubert. Aside from the occasional foray into Bartók or Janáček, Schiff rarely ventures into the 20th or 21st century. With few affectations and attention to the purity of the recital experience — he once shushed a London patron for an errant cellphone — he is to some the anti-Lang Lang.
But appearances can be deceiving. Schiff has been outspoken on interpretive and political matters. He's an unapologetic critic of the right-of-center Hungarian government led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, and in 2013 the pianist told the BBC, "I have been threatened that if I return to Hungary, they will cut off both of my hands. I don't want to risk physical and mental assault." In 2001, Schiff, who lives in Florence, Italy, gave up his Austrian citizenship after the far right came to power.
The principled pianist comes to Carnegie Hall with a program dedicated to composers in the late stages of their careers, including two who grappled with life's struggles and conflicts. Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 reveals a composer pushed to the edge of a precipice, concluding with unvarnished and resigned variations.
Schubert's Sonata in C minor, D. 958 is one of three brooding and dramatic masterpieces the composer wrote during the last few months of his short life. It contains an immense finale with a constant horse-gallop rhythm spread over far-flung harmonies. But the turmoil is interrupted by moments of optimism and serenity.
Schiff's program is not all storm and stress. Mozart, like Schubert, was cut down by disease in his early 30s but never had a true late period, as evidenced by his seemingly untroubled Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. The program begins with Haydn's exuberant Piano Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI: 50, the work of a 77-year-old still exulting in wry wit and trickery.
So what is Schiff's message? As he told WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon in 2013, the pianist himself is keen to stress slow, continual growth. "It's like a good bottle of wine that needs time to mature," he said of a piano career. "There are no shortcuts in musical interpretation. I have to study these works and live with them for decades and decades and learn from my own mistakes. I'm never arriving anywhere. It's always a work in progress."
• Haydn: Piano Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI: 50
• Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
• Mozart: Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545
• Schubert: Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958
András Schiff, piano
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