András Schiff - Wigmore Hall, 29 May 2009 and 31 May 2009
Quatuor Mosaïques - Wigmore Hall, 29 May 2009
Even in this, his anniversary year, Haydn remains curiously overlooked and undervalued. Wigmore Hall redressed the balance a little this weekend with a minifest that ended with acutely Haydnesque precision on the exact bicentenary of his death. I managed half of it, missing out on the opening evening of piano trios and two of Quatuor Mosaïques' three string quartet programmes.
My starter was András Schiff's Friday afternoon lecture recital, based around some pieces he would play in full on Sunday morning. His format - plays a bit, talks a bit, plays a bit more, etc - has the estimable advantage that he can demonstrate precisely what he's going on about, bar by bar. He picks his words carefully as if he has a limited supply and doesn't want to waste any, but he spreads them broadly - history, theory, anecdote, opinion, example. All without sheet music and without notes. Haydn's sense of humour doesn't leap out and grab you (as this recent article by Schiff points out) and neither does Schiff's. But he is far, far funnier than you would ever expect, and again like Haydn, understands how to time a moment's silence to perfection.
And not just that. Such are the Schiff skillz that he could also demonstrate Haydn's inventive genius by showing the opposite. His extemporised reworkings in lesser composer style, complete with safe modulations and predictable phrases and obvious cadences, brilliantly illustrated his comments on the solidity of Haydn's architecture and the daring of his harmonic language. Understanding what something is, especially something as elusively-wrought and intangible as timeless music, is made so much easier when you find out what it isn't.
A lengthy unscheduled break to deal with some sort of audience medical emergency stretched the afternoon to two and a half hours. That's longer than the Sunday morning recital itself, which at two hours for £12, free sherry included, was something of a bargain.
One of Schiff's contentions is that by relegating Haydn to an opening act, modern concert programmes further his undeserved reputation for dullness. Neither performer nor audience - and no composer demands your full attention like Haydn - is warmed up and receptive. So why not chance a 100% Haydn programme now and again?
His utterly captivating Sunday recital proved it can work. The early Capriccio in G major is based on the faintly silly premise of an Austrian folk song about castrating a pig and sparkles with inventiveness, not least in the startling chromaticism (in 1765!) of its central episode. Schiff's crisp articulation and sparing pedalling respected its harpsichord origins.
The Sonata in G minor HXVI:44 displayed his talent for bringing out voicings as the tiny three-note theme recurred again and again. He held the suspended bass note in the C major Fantasy exactly as the composer requested - finche non si sente più il suono - until the sound is not heard any more - a pause of several seconds. And repeated it a few bars later. Technically, if you know the work, neither should surprise, but Schiff has mastered the actor's trick of seeming failure to anticipate. Haydn's humour is not the sort that builds up to a punchline. It's abrupt, unexpected and it has to seem fresh-minted every time if it's going to work. Schiff is naturally attuned to this, as his lecture showed.
The Sonata in E minor HXVI:34 perhaps demonstrates Haydn's prolixity more than his genius but Schiff lavished it with no less care and respect than anything else he played. Schiff displayed Haydn's rarely-exposed introspective side with a winning intimacy in the F minor Variations, and he finished with perhaps the greatest of Haydn's piano works, the Sonata in E flat HXVI:52.
I regretted only having time to make one of Quatuor Mosaïques' three recitals. Their performance of the first three Op.20 quartets was marked by the warmth of their gut strings, near vibrato-free clarity and perfect balance. The odd squeak and flaw merely emphasised that in a live performance, anything can happen.