The Art of András Schiff: A Performance of His Own Three Bs

United StatesUnited States  Bach, Bartók, Beethoven: András Schiff (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 31.10.2011 (SSM)

Bach: Three-Part Inventions, BWV 787-801
Bartók: Piano Sonata
Beethoven: Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120

For several years during the 1980s András Schiff was mainly known as a Bach specialist. His recordings of all of Bach’s major works, while not quite given the hallowed status of Glenn Gould’s Bach, were deservedly treasured. Like Gould, Schiff rerecorded the Goldberg Variations twenty or so years after his first take on it, and this second performance, done live in concert (meaning no weeks of editing and cutting as in Gould’s recordings) was even more universally praised than his first.

I wondered how his performance of Bach’s Three-Part Inventions would compare to his 1985 recording. Written as exercises for Bach’s many children, the Two- and Three-Part Inventions were meant to be played in progressive groups, from the easier two-part study pieces to more complex works with three lines of counterpoint. In addition to keyboard technique, they were also meant to teach clarity of musical line, so that all voices were distinct. The fifteen little three-part pieces are not particularly interesting musically so it takes an imaginative player on the level of Gould in the past and Andrea Bacchietti today to overcome their pedagogical torpor. Unfortunately Schiff’s execution here can not be placed next to these two artists’ performances. These works don’t easily accommodate a piano, and certainly not a grand piano, unless they are played with lightness and delicacy. There were no crescendos possible on the harpsichord, so building to large climaxes as Schiff did totally distorts the music. I’m not suggesting that the piano be played as if it were a harpsichord, or that the Inventions should only be played on a harpsichord, but to ignore these exercises’ raison d’être is ultimately to dismiss the composer’s score as irrelevant. It’s the performer’s choice as to tempo since Bach doesn’t specify any, but some of the Inventions were played here at an unconscionably slow pace; this was particularly true of the fifth, sixth and eleventh.

Schiff is devoting his time in New York to his “In the steps of Bartók” theme for Carnegie Hall’s Perspective series, and chose this Bach work as a pedagogical forerunner of Bartók’s six-volume Mikrokosmos. However, he could just as well have played some of the more interesting Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. An ardent aficionado of the Bösendorfer piano, Schiff has been known to ship his personal piano to performance sites, and perhaps a Bösendorfer might have been made available for him at Carnegie Hall (even with the hegemony that Steinway holds here). The Bösendorfer has a silvery tone, not thin like a harpsichord but more appropriate for playing eighteenth century keyboard music than the Steinway with its bigger sound. It was only in the final invention, number fifteen, that Schiff produced the kind of fire that was needed in the previous fourteen.

After brief applause, Schiff literally jumped into the Bartók sonata as if he had been offered water at an oasis. There was no compromising here. The Steinway responded to his fleet fingers and the scale-stretching chords, awaking members of the audience who had nodded off during the Bach. With its jazzy rushes of sound and distant echoes of Hungarian folk tunes, this sonata was full of flare and fire. The middle movement with its pulsing ground leads into the concluding Allegro Molto with a repeating staccato requiring even more strength than the sonata’s first movement.

The two great variation sets for keyboard, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, have become de rigueur for skilled pianists to perform and record at some point in their careers. Anderszewski, Ashkenazy, Kovacevich (twice) and Richter among others have masterfully interpreted the variations on the silly little theme that obsessed Beethoven to the extent that he wrote thirty-three variations when asked to contribute just one to Diabelli’s compendium. Beethoven’s mad genius inspired him to create a set of compelling short masterpieces. Every emotion imaginable can be found here, from the comical number thirteen with its misplaced near-silent echo of preceding chords, to the twenty-second’s parody of Leporello’s Notte e giorno faticar from Don Giovanni, to the profound and poignant number thirty-one.

Schiff’s uncompromising vision squeezed out meaning from every note. He carried through until the end with the most intense concentration: when the final massive chords were played, it was only premature applause from the audience that awakened him from his rapt state.

And there certainly was no stinting, compromising or perfunctoriness in Schiff’s choice of an encore. There was no bowing and rushing off to a late dinner for this artist. He played the entire Op.109 sonata by Beethoven in a performance that was even more intense than his Diabelli Variations. The encore went on for over twenty minutes, and I was so dazzled at this point that I found myself wishing he would respond to the next round of applause with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata.

Stan Metzger