Encore!

Let’s talk about encores. After the main part of a recital ends, out come the encores. Encores are the little deserts after the main meal, so to speak. They usually are short pieces characterized by ear tickling virtuosity or heart melting sentiment. Over time, certain encores and artists became joined at the hip. For example, audiences refused to budge until Myra Hess played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” or Vladimir Horowitz eased into his signature Schumann “Traumerei.” Although encores usually seemed effortless and tossed off, the greatest pianists actually lavished lots of time polishing and perfecting them. Think of a Horowitz Moszkowski Etude or his own transcription of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever. Or Marc-André Hamelin combining all three Chopin A Minor Etudes into a brilliant tour-de-force.

To be sure, certain lofty-minded pianists avoided encores. When asked why he didn’t play encores, Artur Schnabel replied, “The applause is the receipt, not the bill.” I never heard Claudio Arrau nor Rudolf Serkin play encores, although they did so during their younger years.

By contrast, I remember Idil Biret’s 2003 International Keyboard Institute and Festival recital, where she served up one encore after another, as if she didn’t want to stop. But that was nothing compared to András Schiff’s 2013 Carnegie Hall concert. The first half contained Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with all repeats. The second half featured Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Total time, roughly two and a half hours of music. After the Diabellis, Schiff played the long Arietta second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111 Sonata. A 17-minute encore, yet somehow it felt appropriate, given the recital’s large-scale design and content.

While encores should appear spontaneous, they work best when they fit into the program’s overall design. For example, “Jesu, Joy” gently capped Angela Hewitt’s Miller Theater Goldberg Variations performance many years back. And after an intense and uncompromising all-Schubert program from Alfred Brendel, Schubert’s simple and unassuming Hungarian Melody provided a much needed release for the audience, and probably the pianist himself. Conversely, the Scriabin Etude encore following Maria Perrotta’s live Decca recording of the last three Beethoven sonatas seems like an incongruous fit. So did a Chopin posthumous C-sharp Minor Nocturne following an all-Stockhausen recital’s second half. I often hear young pianists give this Nocturne as an encore, as if it had been automatically programmed into their encore memory banks. Press the button, and out comes Chopin.

What are your most memorable encore moments?

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