at Ravinia Festival

July 9


at Ravinia Festival

July 10

The first two Ravinia recitals of the summer brought to mind a recent discussion with a rock-music producer concerning the difference between performers who are capable of evoking music and performers who simply go through the motions. Music, we agreed, is something transcendent, something the performer must be plugged into before he or she can transmit it to an audience. It is rare in any musical genre to find performers who are able to achieve this, and those who can have difficulty achieving it consistently. One minute you can be listening to a technically proficient player running mindlessly through a piece, and the next minute it appears totally out of the blue: music. Where did it come from? Why wasn’t it there before? What did the player do to suddenly make it appear?

There are no pat answers to such questions, but it is generally true that an audience’s level of involvement will usually mirror the involvement of the performer. The more an artist is able to pour himself into the performance, the greater the likelihood that music will appear. I’m not speaking of technical perfection; as rare as that is, we have all heard players who are brilliant technicians but who have never evoked a single phrase of real music. Yet a performance can be full of imperfections and still transmit music from the first to the last bar.

Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff is that rare performer who understands this difference. He strives above all to put his heart and soul into his playing. He cares more about taking risks and falling down taking them than about displaying careful virtuosity for its own sake.

Most cello recitals are pretty dull affairs. There’s the obligatory 18th-century Bach suite, usually played in 19th-century style with large vibrato and stodgy tempi, and then a selection of 19th-century sonatas for cello and piano. Only a handful of those pieces are musically interesting, and most are mere showcases for the instrument.

The recent Schiff recital, his debut here, was distinctive, however. He did play a Bach suite, but he made an attempt to keep it light and lively, in an 18th-century style. And rather than lots of big 19th-century sonatas, there was only one–but one of the most musically substantive: the Brahms Sonata no. 1, op. 38. There were also two contemporary pieces by Schnittke and Martinu.

It’s startling to realize that it has been only a century since the 13-year-old Pablo Casals found the six Bach suites for solo cello on a dusty shelf in a secondhand shop in Barcelona and rescued the largely unknown pieces for posterity. Casals worked on the pieces every day for 12 years until he felt ready to present them to the public, and almost immediately they took their rightful place as the cornerstone of the cello repertoire. They are miraculous pieces, exploiting the musical possibilities of the instrument in a way not heard before or since. They were written virtually in a vacuum–the cello wasn’t heard as an unaccompanied instrument before Bach (it originated as a portable bass-string instrument for processions, and was later used as an integral part in realizing continuo passages).

If no cellist has been able to make these pieces his own to the extent Casals did, some early-music cellists have at least taught us far more about Baroque performance practices than was known in his day. Though Schiff doesn’t play a Baroque cello, he does make some attempt to approximate a pure tone and brisk tempi, and he avoids the heavy-handed approach so characteristic of many of his colleagues.

Schiff’s Bach playing had some idiosyncrasies that were sometimes distracting–he did overplay occasionally, making for a coarse tone, and sometimes sounded a bit steely in the upper register. But his playing was generally even and smooth, and, more important, evoked the proper Baroque spirit and feeling–the various dance sections were lively enough that you could have danced to them. Not even Rostropovich could approximate in live performance the variety of colors and moods Schiff achieved.

The Brahms First Cello Sonata is the first instrumental sonata Brahms ever wrote (excluding pieces Brahms himself never cataloged), and he labored over it for three years before it took the form we now recognize. Here Schiff’s playing was so close to the edge that he sometimes slipped over it, as he did in the buzzy fugue entrance that opened the finale (a Brahmsian tribute to Bach). The intensity was so extreme that Schiff snapped a string. Few things will ruin the mood and symmetry of a Brahms cello sonata like a broken string in the climax, and many musicians would have been so unnerved by such an unfortunate situation that their concentration would have been destroyed and their tempers triggered. But Schiff made the best of it by making a joke. “I hope there are a lot of cellists out there,” he said. “Especially one with an A string. That was my last one.” Amazingly enough, one hurried backstage with string in hand, and after a few minutes offstage Schiff was back finishing the piece. Both before and after the broken string this was extraordinary Brahms playing–it was never oversentimentalized, and it explored a variety of moods and contrasts. Schiff was fortunate to have the collaboration of pianist Samuel Sanders, who was able to keep up with Schiff’s intensity and sudden shifts of mood and color.

The two contemporary works Schiff performed were the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke and the Variations on a Theme of Rossini by the late Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The Schnittke work was the more interesting of the two, though I couldn’t help thinking that he must have intended this music for some sort of trio involving a high wind instrument–a flute, oboe, or clarinet. The piece seemed to cry out for a higher top line, and the cello was sometimes required to play dangerously high on the bridge. Schiff and Sanders certainly gave the work a convincing performance, though there was much less for Sanders to do–his simplistic part was not particularly pianistic. The work draws from a variety of sources, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, even film composer Bernard Herrmann. It exploits the tritone (augmented fourth) chromatically and is characterized by a dialogue, usually in contrasting registers, between cello and piano. Schiff did an impressive job with the work’s various effects, which include “Flight of the Bumble Bee”-style rapid passages, cicadalike buzzing noises, and mouse squeaks. Sometimes the work seemed to have more effects than musical substance, and it did go on for a while, often without anything to say.

The Martinu work is a showpiece, and it gave Schiff a chance to explore the more Classical sound of his cello in a contemporary idiom that allowed for various colors and styles of playing. Neither the Schnittke nor the Martinu is a work of great substance, but both were fun. And it was nice to have two works from our own century on the program, a fair balance to the heavyweight Bach and Brahms pieces.

The audience was extremely appreciative of Schiff’s efforts, and obviously knew it had been witness to something unusual and special. A series of encores began, with a waltz by Gliere–a four-hand piano piece. Schiff explained that he really shouldn’t play his cello again because the new string should have time to breathe and break in. As it turned out, he’s also a fine pianist, but it took just a bit more applause after the waltz for him to return with cello in hand to play a spirited transcription of a Scott Joplin rag and a lyrical, lingering performance of Casals’s transcription of Faure’s Apres un reve to close out the evening. One had the sense that Schiff was so consummate a showman and so giving a performer that he would have been happy to come back out another time with a lamp shade on his head if he thought that’s what the audience would have enjoyed. “I don’t know,” said one elderly man to his wife on the way out. “He’s a great player, but I still think Victor Borge is funnier.”

Soviet-born pianist Shura Cherkassky is one of the last of a dying breed of great master pianists in the Romantic tradition, making a rare recital here by him an event. I hadn’t heard him when he was here in ’87, and I wasn’t prepared for the clarity and brilliance of his playing given his age (late 70s). But he was able to toss off a recital of fascinating and difficult repertoire more convincingly than pianists half his age. Like Schiff, he is a totally committed and giving performer who isn’t afraid to challenge himself, and he delivered one of the most substantial and thrilling piano recitals heard here in recent memory.

Although Bach never wrote for the piano (it wasn’t invented until the end of his life), it is commonplace for Romantic pianists to play his clavier works on the piano. But when one can bring the level of artistry to them that Cherkassky can, who would complain? Bach’s Italian Concerto (BWV 971) is a bravura Baroque concerto in the ornately decorated style of Torelli and Vivaldi. Cherkassky’s tempi may have been on the slow side, but the subtle shadings, crystal clarity, and sense of Baroque swing he brought to the piece more than compensated. He didn’t overpedal, as most Romantic pianists do–only enough to make the transfer from harpsichord to piano effective–and his performance was clean, even, and smooth throughout.

Cherkassky then turned to a pair of Romantic sonatas. Both are quite programmatic and concerned with death, yet together they show the development of the form from its emergence in Carl Maria von Weber to its full flowering in Chopin–a time-lapse view of how the Romantic movement developed through piano music. Weber’s Sonata no. 4, op. 70, is not one of the more memorable piano pieces of early Romanticism (when your contemporaries are Beethoven and Schubert how could it be?), but Cherkassky made a convincing case for it nonetheless. It was unfortunate that a crucial key broke early in the piece (and was never repaired in the break–where are piano technicians when you need them?), but Cherkassky didn’t let that bother him. The account was remarkably sensitive and musical, and it showed why this piece is important as well as how much Weber’s piano music owes to his operas.

Prefacing the familiar and much more substantial Chopin Second Piano Sonata with the unfamiliar Weber sonata gave the Chopin a whole new context. This was not a flashy performance: this was a Romantic performance in the true sense–evoking not only the spirit of that musical time but revealing all of the programmatic meanings in each of the movements. Cherkassky brought out the yearning and insecurity of the opening movement and the genuine chaos of the scherzo. The famous “Funeral March” was hushed and somber, but the interlude became a breath of light and fresh air–a unique and effective approach to this music. Arthur Rubinstein, whose interpretation influenced virtually every 20th-century pianist, always treated the whole movement as a death march, but Cherkassky demonstrated that Chopin might well have wanted a subtle contrast between the two sections. In the finale, Cherkassky eerily evoked, as Anton Rubinstein once described it, “the winds of the night sweeping over churchyard graves, the dust blowing and the dust that remains.”

Like Schiff, Cherkassky brought some contemporary music with him, the Berg Sonata, op. 1, and the Stockhausen Klavierstuck IX. The Berg, his first published work while still a student of Schoenberg, is now a classic piece of the repertoire, and one that holds up brilliantly not only as a daring sonata at the twilight of Romanticism but also as a pointer to the dawn of serialism (I love the piece, since it was one of the first contemporary works I ever worked on). Most contemporary pianists forget that the work’s heavy chromaticism must be viewed against the backdrop of an extended B-minor tonality and that this is not rambling, angry atonal music. It is a quiet, tranquil sonata that, in the right hands, is thoroughly Romantic in conception, owing as much to Debussy as Schoenberg. Cherkassky delivered the most sensitive account I’ve ever heard of the work, revealing it for the late Romantic masterpiece it truly is.

Again, the pairing of Berg and Stockhausen was no accident: the one a prelude, the other a postlude to the 12-tone movement that so dominated much of the 20th century, with Stockhausen representing the total serialization of all musical elements. Stockhausen has called his piano music his drawings and his electronic compositions his paintings. In truth his Klavierstuck IX is pretty dated, dependent more on effects than substance, but Cherkassky managed to give it some refinement. With its repeated low, chromatic chord built on tritones, it still sounds to me much like that awful “train” piece found in every Schwann beginning piano method book.

I won’t begrudge Cherkassky his corny finale–a ridiculous transcription by the 19th-century Polish pianist Adolf Schulz-Evler of Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”–for there was plenty of substance in the rest of his program. The paraphrase pianistically breaks up and rolls out in stride fashion and rippling arpeggios even the least significant details of the famous waltz. It was pretty gaudy and overdone stuff, but it accurately reflected what 19th-century audiences got at piano recitals.

No less than three encores followed: the Liszt Liebestraum, Chopin’s Tarantelle, and Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, just to show that Cherkassky has as much of a sense of humor as he has musical ability. I can’t wait for him to return.