In 3 Recitals, Pianists Take Old-School Turn (With Nary An Encore) 

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Andras Schiff played a varied program on Oct. 11 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo by Nadia F. Romanini)

PERSPECTIVE — It was heartening to see three recitals in Southern California over the last month given by pianists representing three generations. Disregarding well-meaning artistic directors seeking to “revitalize” classical music by introducing pop elements into concerts, these artists — Stewart Goodyear, 44, András Schiff, 68, and Stephen Kovacevich, 82 — gave largely traditional recitals featuring works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Schiff announced his program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 11 from the stage. When he began with the opening Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, concertgoers may have settled in for a likely repeat of his 2013 Disney concert. But, no. The mischievous pianist said that was our encore; there would be no others. That’s quite something to tell a rapt audience of 1,300 when his recital had barely begun.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not the soul of Schiff. Over the next three hours, the soft-spoken Hungarian-born British pianist introduced a work, then played it with brief pauses between movements. In earlier recitals, Schiff performed multi-movement pieces attaca, neutralizing audience members who impulsively clapped between movements. As he told me in a 2015 interview, silence — engaged listening — only enhances the works in his impressively large repertoire.

“I don’t know what I will play, but it will be very good music,” Schiff said. “Life is too short to play or listen to bad music.” Many in the audience applauded when he cited Bach as “the greatest composer of all time.”

Schiff traversed several works by Bach in the first half of what amounted to a hybrid recital, mixing casual lecture, master class, and career retrospective. His songlike rendition of Bach’s Italian Concerto flowed naturally into Haydn’s Sonata No. 33 in C minor, in which the pianist played all the repeats without blunting wit and tenderness.

“Playing the repeats gives us a chance to correct our mistakes,” Schiff told the audience, adding that Haydn remains the “most underrated of composers.”

Curiously, after speculating that Beethoven may have known Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, the pianist became uncharacteristically vague in explaining its influence on the later composer’s Sonata No. 17 (The Tempest). Nevertheless, both works were rendered with exquisite tone production, proportion, and clarity of line. Especially memorable was Schiff’s lightly galloping way in the Tempest finale.

After intermission came Mozart’s melancholy Rondo in A minor, K. 511, played fast but not rushed, and an alternately introverted and turbulent reading of Schubert’s penultimate Sonata in A major, D. 959. Here the pianist had a wider dynamic range to play with, especially in the frightening second-movement Andantino, which Schiff called “apocalyptic.”

Stewart Goodyear’s progam at The Wallis in Beverly Hills on Oct. 15 comprised works by Higdon, Davis, Beethoven, and Goodyear himself.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Stewart Goodyear, who made his debut in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at The Wallis in Beverly Hills on Oct. 15. Goodyear is an artist for whom driving momentum and the illusion of improvisatory spontaneity are paramount. In the recital’s second half, he blazed through the thickets of Beethoven’s notoriously daunting Sonata No. 29 (Hammerklavier).

In 2013, the Canadian pianist raised eyebrows after performing the composer’s 32 sonatas in one day. If the speeds taken in his Wallis recital are any indication, Goodyear probably had time left for dinner and a movie. However, he inexplicably ignored important dramatic fermatas, or holds, in the Hammerklavier. For example, the spacious meditative third movement Adagio — one of the most moving ever composed and Beethoven’s longest — came off devoid of reflective poetry.

Was Goodyear’s breathless run-through a reaction to so few people showing up? A colleague wondered whether the pianist felt some hostility. Or did it derive from Beethoven? By the time of the sonata’s writing in 1818, the composer had lost all hearing, and life had become more isolating than ever. Goodyear’s coolly frantic performance drove me to take another look at Ruth Padel’s recent Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life, her emotionally convincing vision of how “manic rage” and the “sound” of going deaf pierced some of his scores. Perhaps Goodyear just likes to play fast.

Fast worked well for the three largely motoric works in the recital’s first half: Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens, Anthony Davis’ Middle Passage, and Goodyear’s own vivid composition, Phoenix.

The Higdon felt like jazz-inspired impressionism in Goodyear’s hands, with brash octaves blooming alongside the work’s more introspective sections, and in Middle Passage, the pianist’s dug-in sonorities giving heft to Davis’ dissonant pages. While Goodyear’s thrilling velocity in Phoenix seemed apt preparation for his coming traversal of Beethoven’s wild outer movements in the Hammerklavier, his sheer virtuosity became a liability in Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie and L’isle joyeuse, where he displayed no care in structuring the dramatic tensions and building to the scores’ respective massive and ecstatic climaxes.  

Like Schiff and Goodyear, Stephen Kovacevich offered no encore after his wonderfully compact and moving 90-minute recital at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo on Oct. 23.

Stephen Kovacevich offered no encore after his wonderfully compact and moving 90-minute recital on Oct. 23 at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. (Photo by Keito Newman)

First, it was comforting to welcome the pianist back to Southern California after a scheduled date in January was canceled due to Covid. He dazzled in 2017, when he performed two concerts at Disney Hall: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and a two-piano recital with his ex-wife Martha Argerich.

The sparse Soka audience greeted the octogenarian enthusiastically as he sat on his Glenn Gould-like low piano bench. Opening with a taut but sensual performance of Berg’s single-movement Piano Sonata, Op. 1, Kovacevich showed no signs of diminished passion, weaving the score’s dense textures and Expressionistic agitation into a tonally warm and rich love letter. 

In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, the pianist’s precise articulation, gradations of touch, athletic hand-crossings and trills, and fascinating contortions of fingers in the Allegro’s trio became a visual treat, almost theatrical, as, one supposes Beethoven intended. Displaying smooth counterpoint in the lyrical, three-voice Fugue finale, Kovacevich also demonstrated his ease with voice leading, possibly learned during his years studying with the great pianist Myra Hess.

After intermission, Kovacevich gave a magisterial reading — one perhaps achieved only after a lifetime — of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D. 960. Conveying the pain, flickering hope, and ultimate acceptance the composer must have felt during his final months, the pianist’s unsentimental approach made the most of the sonata’s foreboding first-movement bass rumblings, sounding darkly textured in Soka’s warmly resonant hall.  

“I’m not going to push my luck,” a jet-lagged Kovacevich told the expectant audience, apologizing for the absence of an encore. But it was more a case of something Schiff had noted at the start of his recital: “There are some pieces where nothing else need be said.”