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Music review: Andras Schiff plays Schumann in Disney Hall

October 14, 2010 |  1:53 pm

Schiff
This year is the 200th anniversary of the births of Chopin and Schumann. Chopin and Schumann, always in that order.

The Chopin celebration –- on recordings, at festivals, in special events and even featured on news reports –- has dominated. Wikipedia’s Chopin entry is double the length of Schumann’s. A Google search generates nearly 12 million results for Chopin, four times as many as for Schumann.

Wednesday night András Schiff devoted a wondrous Walt Disney Concert Hall piano recital to Schumann. The concert was not as well attended as had been his Mozart and Bach programs in the hall a few years ago, to say nothing of the devoted following this eloquent pianist attracted to his recital Beethoven sonata cycle here during the last two seasons. No doubt a lesser pianist playing Chopin would have fared better. Not even the fact that in the same venue last week Gustavo Dudamel gave a compelling account of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony to open the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season appears to have made much difference in drawing a crowd.

Could it be that Schumann’s madness makes us uneasy? The composer’s mental health worried him from an early age. He spent his last two years institutionalized and died at 46. He had a split personality and sometimes signed pieces Eusebius or Florestan, the names he gave to his introverted and extroverted selves. He was said to have been passive-aggressive and maybe manic-depressive. He sang the song of schizophrenia.

Schiff’s recital contained four piano cycles –- “Waldszenen” (Forest Scenes), “Davidsbundlertänze” (Dances of the League of David), “Kinderszenen” (Scenes of Childhood) and the Symphonic Etudes. If I count correctly, that was 53 short pieces. More often than not, they alternate between Eusebius and Florestan. In other words, there were something like two dozen mood swings in two hours –- and even more when you throw in the 13-part, 13-minute “Papillons,” which was Schiff’s substantial encore.

But instead of Schumann the psychotic, Schiff presented him whole, a composer with an unlimited capacity for invention and one who made it up as he went along. The Hungarian pianist played, as he always does these days, with a tremendous sensitivity –- to color, to touch, to sound, to phrase, to melody, to counterpoint, to harmony, to humor, to sadness, to irony, to history. He is an intense interpreter who likes to get inside a composer. His Beethoven cycle came with the added insights of thoughtful, original program notes and, online, mp3s of his engrossing lectures on all the sonatas.

There were no Schiff extras for Schumann. Many of the individual movements have descriptive titles, but even these weren’t available to the audience during the performance, since the hall was left too dark to read the program. So Wednesday we had to figure out for ourselves what was meant to convey “Haunted Places” or a “Pleasant Landscape,” what was “An Important Event” or merely a “Curious Story.”

Unless you know these works really well, that wasn’t easy, because Schiff treated them as pure and ideal music. But the result was revelatory. Schiff -- who chose a new American Steinway that was recently acquired by the philharmonic over its older German grand piano -– produced a singing tone, supple and radiant with a kind of afterglow that is his personal sonic aura.

In “Waldszenen,” Schiff toyed with delicious dissonances that he seemed to pull out of a harmonic hat. In “Davidsbundlertänze,” Eusebius and Florestan are Schumann’s Davidian generals battling cultural Philistines, and every one of the 18 short movements reveals a different strategy. Melody might be straightforward, but the rhythm or harmony will trip a listener up. Schumann marches in four-bar phrases, except when he doesn’t.

Schiff made Schumann’s endlessly fascinating details and ever innovative solutions to micro-structure and macro-structure feel like living music, concocted on the spot. He even kept the familiar “Kinderszenen,” Schumann’s stepping into the head of a child, sounding fresh and unsentimental, though not without convincing sentiment.

Eusebius and Florestan remain front and center in the Symphonic Etudes, as well. But in this bravura series of variations and etudes on a theme, Schumann may have been looking over at his shoulder at Chopin.

Schiff selected a tight later version of the work, just the nine variations and none of the etudes. He began the theme very slowly but became downright driven in the more virtuoso variations. He has, I think, more to offer in the character pieces, but Schiff evidently wanted a big bang at the end, and he made one.

No pianist can –- or should -- knock Chopin off his pedestal. But Schiff at Disney put Schumann right next to him, which is precisely where he belongs.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: András Schiff performing in Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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