Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker interviews the great Sir András Schiff about the power of, well, a trill.
The other day, I sat with Sir András Schiff, the Hungarian-born, British-based pianist, in a practice room at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, contemplating a great musical mystery: the trill in the eighth measure of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat, D. 960. “It’s the most extraordinary trill in the history of music,” Schiff said, peering at my copy of the score. Sixty-one years old and an undisputed master of the Germanic repertory, Schiff has earned the right to make this sort of pronouncement, although he delivered the remark softly and haltingly, with a sense of wonder.
But it’s more than just any trill.
The B-Flat Sonata, which Schubert completed two months before his death, in 1828, is a work of vast dimensions and vertiginous depths. It has long struck listeners as a kind of premature communication from the beyond, and it is the trill more than anything that supplies the otherworldly atmosphere.
In the article, Ross describes how Schiff has discovered a new way to play this trill.
In 2010, he acquired an eighteen-twenties Viennese fortepiano, lighter in action and crisper in sound than a modern piano. He used it on the ECM recording. The instrument has four pedals, including a “moderator” pedal that causes a piece of cloth to be inserted between the hammers and the strings. “When I use that pedal on the trill, I get a very different sound,” Schiff told me. “The notes are distinct. You can translate the effect onto a modern instrument, but only if it is very well voiced. Before, I used more sustaining pedal. Now I like it light. The pedal is actually quite damaging. You see that dot on the final eighth note? It needs to stop quickly. It’s like a word that ends with a consonant, not a vowel. Without pedal, you can cut it off.”
So, what does all this mean? Does the entire piece rest in this “Trill of Doom”?