Andras Schiff played the recital of his life on Tuesday, and in light of the lofty standard established by this 58-year-old pianist, that's saying a lot. But the 2½-hour recital of miniature works — the first half had 74 movements or pieces played without pause — was a lot to take in. Comfortable enjoyment wasn't in the game plan.
While Schiff has long charmed his public with his teddy-bear presence and poetic, soft-spoken concerts of Bach, his Tuesday recital, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the Perelman Theater, interspersed Bach inventions among more assaultive peasant dances by Bartok and the brand-new Circus Dances by the contemporary Austrian composer Jorg Widmann. The second half featured Bagatelles, showing Beethoven at his most obscure, as well as four new Gyorgy Kurtag pieces and Bartok's Out of Doors. .
As a Bach specialist, Schiff smartly used that composer's modest Inventions almost like the "promenade theme" in Pictures at an Exhibition, allowing breathing space between vividly descriptive works by others. As much as I love Bartok's Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, Widman's ink-still-wet Circus Dances was a substantial discovery. Each movement springs, with much wit, from some popular music form (boogie woogie, Venetian gondolier songs, etc.). There are disjointed attempts at suaveness, Chopin-on-crack mania, and a number of dances that are dismembered across the wide range of the keyboard, leaving individual scraps lying around, still wiggling.
These descriptions are all meant to be complimentary. But in the final moments when you'd expect the piece to surpass itself, it doesn't. There could be another revision in store. Still, whether or not prep time was short, Schiff delivered a completely convincing performance.
The Kurtag works in the second half showed how much better this composer is when surrounded by sympathetic company (rather than on his own) while also offering a fascinating contrast to pretty much everything else on the recital. While Bach was out to transcend earthly existence with form, symmetry, logic and order, Bartok embraced the real world, from the mud to the booze, letting the music do what it wanted. Kurtag's pieces seemed to have even more a mind of their own in terms of form. Closer observation, however, revealed that his musical imagery is meticulously and thoughtfully molded and deeply felt, especially in Memory of a Pure Soul, written for the pianist's mother, Klari, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2010. So Kurtag, in his way, creates a world apart from ours as Bach does, but in a sharp-edged language handed down from Bartok.
Performances showed how much Schiff has evolved over the years. Though he started out as sort of an anti-Glenn Gould, playing Bach with a rosy-shaded glow, he now keeps his feet off the pedals and has more of the unvarnished sound (though not the mannered intellectualism) of Gould. He was at his penetrating best in the Out of Doors suite, specifically the "Night's Music" movement that employed all of the coloristic wizardry, with a four-note motif suggesting mindlessly restless insects in counterpoint to all sort of other nocturnal sounds. Even with fatigue setting in (both Schiff's and the audience's), the performance felt wondrous. If you've ever thought that you could listen to Schiff all night, he proved that on Tuesday: The audience asked for an encore and got one (Brahms Op. 117, No. 1).