By guest author Alex Ross
“What other work is so full of silence?” (András Schiff)
The other day, I sat with Sir András Schiff, the Hungarian-born, British-based pianist, in a practice room at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, contemplating a great musical mystery: the trill in the eighth measure of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat, D. 960. “It’s the most extraordinary trill in the history of music,” Schiff said, peering at my copy of the score. Sixty-one years old and an undisputed master of the Germanic repertory, Schiff has earned the right to make this sort of pronouncement, although he delivered the remark softly and haltingly, with a sense of wonder.
Schiff had played the B-Flat Sonata at Disney the night before, as part of a multi-year series of concerts called “The Last Sonatas,” in which he has explored late-period music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The recital also included Haydn’s Sonata No. 62, in E-Flat; Mozart’s Sonata in D, K. 576; and Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, Opus 111. The program was a mammoth one, lasting nearly two and a half hours. Schiff, far from exhausted at the end, offered as an encore Schumann’s cryptic farewell, the “Ghost Variations.” […]
The B-Flat Sonata, which Schubert completed two months before his death, in 1828, is a work of vast dimensions and vertiginous depths. It has long struck listeners as a kind of premature communication from the beyond, and it is the trill more than anything that supplies the otherworldly atmosphere. At the outset, a theme rotates serenely in place, with lyric phrases wafting through the right hand and an eighth-note figure purring in the left. It comes to rest on an F-major chord, whereupon the trill steals in, beginning on a low F and trembling between the notes G-flat and A-flat. The flat notes darken the major-key tonality, and the sudden move into the bass is destabilizing. The trill – a gesture that formerly served a decorative function – becomes a sign of the uncanny.
Listen to the opening bars of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat, D. 960.
AUDIO 1 (Recording by Decca)
Various metaphors come to mind for this remarkable event: shadow, tremor, shudder, groan. Schiff, contemplating the sonata’s opening bars, thinks of the sea—in particular, the sea depicted in Schubert’s song “Am Meer.” There a spacious major-key theme gives way to an ominous tremolando, reflecting a contrast in the Heinrich Heine text: “The sea shimmered far and wide. … The fog rose, the water surged.” Schiff imagines a similar vista in the sonata. “I see a broad horizon, a calm ocean,” he told me. “It’s beautiful how often Schubert writes about the sea, even though he never saw it. Then the trill – a very distant murmuring, maybe of an approaching storm. Still very far, but approaching. It is not a pleasant noise, this murmuring. Maybe it is also the approach of death. And then silence. What other work is so full of silence? And then the original melody resumes. This is only speculation – I cannot say what it really means.”
Schiff has been performing the B-Flat Sonata for decades, and has recorded it twice: first in 1995, for the Decca label, and at the beginning of 2015, for ECM. But he is still working through its enigmas. Lately, he has found a different way to play the trill. In 2010, he acquired an eighteen-twenties Viennese fortepiano, lighter in action and crisper in sound than a modern piano. He used it on the ECM recording. The instrument has four pedals, including a “moderator” pedal that causes a piece of cloth to be inserted between the hammers and the strings. “When I use that pedal on the trill, I get a very different sound,” Schiff told me. “The notes are distinct. You can translate the effect onto a modern instrument, but only if it is very well voiced. Before, I used more sustaining pedal. Now I like it light. The pedal is actually quite damaging. You see that dot on the final eighth note?
It needs to stop quickly. It’s like a word that ends with a consonant, not a vowel. Without pedal, you can cut it off.”
Schiff gave a demonstration at the piano. First, he played the trill with the pedal, producing a low, grim blur. “Just a big rumble,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s what Schubert meant. Also, you could never do that on the fortepiano.” Then he executed the trill in accordance with his current thinking. The component pitches were more perceptible, and the final F made a pinpoint sound, like a stone dropping into water. Schiff paged ahead and pointed to a reappearance of the trill at the end of the exposition, just before the repeat. “Here it’s marked fortissimo,” he explained. “It becomes something scary, demonic. The sonata goes always between the two poles. In this of all pieces, you must take the repeat, because if not, among other things, you will lose this incredible shock.” (If, as many pianists do, you skip the repeat of the exposition, you must also skip the nine preparatory bars that lead into it, ending with that trill of doom.)
Listen again to Schiff, this time the final measures of the exposition played on the pianoforte.
AUDIO 2 (Recording by ECM)
Needless to say, Schiff had taken the repeat at his performance the previous night, at which he played a modern Hamburg Steinway. The first movement went on for almost twenty minutes, nearly assuming the proportions of a Bruckner or a Mahler movement. But Schiff is not one to emphasize the cosmic hugeness of the conception, as Sviatoslav Richter did in his notoriously – though enthrallingly – slow readings of the sonata. In the first movement, Schiff maintains an even, walking tempo, holding the eighth-note pulse steady throughout. Likewise, he keeps the slow movement flowing at a pace appropriate to Schubert’s indication, “Andante sostenuto.” Schiff resists the current fashion, undoubtedly influenced by Richter, for recasting the Andante as a desolate Adagio.
This is not to imply that Schiff’s reading lacked intensity. A couple of decades ago, his Schubert performances could be elegant to a fault. These days, even as he applies lessons learned from the lighter action of the fortepiano, he makes uninhibited use of the full symphonic power of the modern grand. The fortissimo trill in the first movement ricocheted unnervingly within the hypersensitive Disney acoustics. The climactic presentation of the main theme in the recapitulation had brassy strength. In short, Schiff is eager to maximize Schubert’s contrasts, which are indeed extreme.
Schiff brought the same freedom to other pieces on the program. I’ve recently heard some high-octane accounts of Beethoven’s Opus 111 – notably, Igor Levit’s precocious rendition at the Park Avenue Armory, last year – but Schiff has a particular ability to glory in Beethoven’s contradictions. One moment, he was pounding out the raucous syncopations of the so-called boogie-woogie variation; in the next, crystalline chains of thirty-second notes materialized above his piano, weightless and luminous. In the Haydn, esoteric games were intercut with shivers of chromatic unease. Mozart seemed the odd man out: I wondered whether he belonged in this late-style gallery, since death came on him relatively quickly, when he was in his prime.
With Schubert, of course, the spectre of death is omnipresent, and not only because of prevailing Romantic preoccupations: syphilis had marked him for an early demise. Perhaps the greatest challenge of the B-Flat Sonata is how to carry the narrative past the first two movements, both of which are poised at the edge of the abyss. Schiff rejects the conventional notion that Schubert’s inspiration faltered in the brighter-toned Scherzo and Finale; rather, he sees them as further stages in a negotiation with death. His avoidance of mystical excess at the outset results in a more balanced structure. On the ECM recording, the tangy sonorities of the fortepiano make the finale a complex delight.
“These last two movements are like a hallucination of a new life,” Schiff told me. “They are what the dying person might experience on the threshold. The coda has a wonderful, chaotic joy in it: this rushing out, this looking for the final exit, this last flourish. Schubert is saying yes to life. There is still hope.” But the trill has sounded.