When one ponders the late music of Beethoven (1770-1827), the longeurs, titanic struggles and other-worldly qualities of his Choral Symphony, Missa Solemnis and last string quartets are supreme examples. In his late piano pieces, the paradox of brevity in the presence of portentousness comes into play. This was no better illustrated than in the great Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff's recital of three very different late Beethoven works on Monday at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall.
Almost monk-like in his demeanour, Schiff took slow steps as he paced toward the piano. There was reverent silence as he began with the Six Bagatelles Op.126 (1824), miniatures that were no mere shavings from the master's work table. Within each contained a different world of Beethoven's personality and psyche. From wistful, fidgety, sanguine, defiant, pensive to a summation of all these, Schiff seemed to find a wealth of mood and nuances to last a lifetime.
Pearly and lustrous was the tone he coaxed from the Steinway grand, and the volume was upped for the last Sonata, No.32 in C minor Op.111 (1821-22), arguably Beethoven's greatest piano work. Yet there was no resort to banging in its declamatory opening, often a pitfall for lesser artists. The angry fist-shaking and hand-wringing of the first movement ran its course, the pure passion and raw rage resolving in a calm C major chord.
There was no premature applause as the second movement's Arietta took shape, and the variations unfolded with an inexorability that was devastating. Again, the full gamut of emotions was laid out, with a diversion in that syncopated 3rd variation which had commentators proclaim that "Beethoven invented jazz". The final series of trills, almost deafening in its intensity and tinnitus, was his definitive statement on terminal hearing loss. Schiff's overview was a breath-taking one.
If he appeared over-serious in the first half, Schiff emerged after the interval with a smile for the Diabelli Variations (1823), and a panoply of tricks up his baggy sleeves. When the Viennese publisher Anton Diabelli had cooked up a silly waltz theme and asked 50 composers to contribute one variation each, Beethoven came up with just 33.
With surprises and shocks aplenty, the composer was at his most tongue-in-cheek, cocking a snook at the publisher, social convention, and other composers including the long-deceased Mozart. Schiff revelled in its never-ending humour, shifting gears and alternating dynamics as each variation demanded. Ironic one moment, probing in the next, and with hilarious and poker-faced to come, this was the early 19th century's laugh-a-minute comedy act.
To cap it all, a soulful aria and joyous fugue was the culmination, only to be reminded by Beethoven that he could end it as soon as he liked, with a massive closing chord. Applause came only after the last vestige of resonance had evaporated into the ether, and it was sustained and prolonged.
To which Schiff responded with four substantial encores, the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations (with repeats), a Schubert Impromptu (Op.90 No.2), a Brahms Intermezzo (Op.117 No.1), and for good measure, all three movements of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Could this be the piano recital of the year?