András Schiff (piano)


NCH, Dublin

Mozart – 12 Variations in B flat K500 Mendelssohn – Variations sérieuses Haydn – Variations in F minor Schumann – Variations on an original theme in E flat. Beethoven – Diabelli Variations.

A full concert programme consisting of nothing but variations is a risky undertaking. Take András Schiff’s programme at the National Concert Hall on Sunday. On the surface it looked like any other programme of five pieces. But the themes and variations actually amounted to nearly 80 sections, 34 (including the theme) in the case of Beethoven’s DiabelliVariations alone.

Schiff constructed his programme with craft and musical cunning. The opening set of variations by Mozart were the most conventional, mostly florid treatments of a perky theme.

Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieusestake their darkly brooding material through virtuosic terrain – the composer was once described as having performed the piece with “monstrous bravura” – and Schiff played it with such a clear sense of trajectory that most of its sectional seams simply disappeared.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor mix dark and light by having two themes, and alternating major and minor keys. Schiff launched it with just the right sense of noble calm and was equally effective in its stormier outbursts. He successfully ironed all the awkwardness out of the haunting theme of Schumann’s late Variations in E flat which retaining its essential ambiguity, and fully conveyed the mysteriously swarming intensity of the variations which followed.

Beethoven’s DiabelliVariations originated in an idea by fellow composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli to have every important composer in Austria write a variation on a waltz he had written himself. Beethoven’s response was to treat the trivial material to the most extravagant of transformations, almost mangling and sometimes disassembling the theme in the most unlikely of ways.

Schiff followed the transformations with fidelity, but in his earnestness missed something of the esprit of the enterprise, which does involve Beethoven having fun at the expense of the theme as well as with it.