I have always been attracted to composers who did not write idiomatically for the piano," says András Schiff with a somewhat rueful chuckle. "And Janácek is one of the most unidiomatic of all. He is terribly unpianistic, very awkward. Yet his piano music is incredibly beautiful and, to me, very important."
And so this season, the Hungarian-born pianist is exploring Leos Janácek's piano and chamber music during a three-concert series this October in Zankel Hall and Isaac Stern Auditorium. Assisting him will be the Panocha Quartet; violinist Yuuko Shiokawa, who is Schiff's wife; and cellist Miklós Perényi.
"When people think of Janácek, they think primarily of his operas," says Schiff. "The instrumental music is not as well known as it deserves to be"‹which is why he is spending part of this season presenting what he calls "one of my favorite projects" across North America. In addition to his concerts at Carnegie Hall, Schiff's Janácek mini-festivals will stop in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Toronto.
"I like to think in terms of projects, and not just single concerts," he explains. "I like to choose a composer or a theme and explore it, to submerge myself in the whole oeuvre of the composer. I also read a lot and find out what literature and art he was fond of, who his influences were, who his contemporaries were. At the end of it, one comes away knowing more, but certainly never everything. But it opens a few more doors."
Schiff first performed Janácek's piano music when a small festival in Germany asked him to play the Sonata 1.X.1905, From the Street, and he instantly fell in love with the piece. "It speaks to me so directly," he says, adding with a laugh, "Of course, it is a kind of unfinished masterpiece, something he did not approve of. Janácek wanted to destroy [the score] and maybe he would be very angry that pianists are playing the piece."
The Sonata is a good example of the intensely personal, emotional nature of Janácek's music, and also the composer's relationship with his native land. On October 1, 1905, workers demonstrated in the town of Brno for a Czech-speaking university (a dangerous notion for a land ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and soldiers opened fire, killing one of them. "Janácek was shattered by the experience," Schiff says, "so this is a very emotional piece. The first movement is called 'The Presentiment' and the second is called 'Death.'" According to some sources, the composer destroyed the manuscript of the third movement after the first performance, so technically the work is unfinished, but, as Schiff puts it, "It ends with Death, and what third movement do you write after Death? Nothing more remains to be said. It's a very deeply felt, deeply tragic, and very moving piece, just as it is."
"Janácek's music is always accessible," he continues. "He has a fantastic natural sense of proportion. I don't know one Janácek piece that is a second too long. He says all that has to be said."
Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.