András Schiff’s Complete English Suites at Lincoln Center

United StatesUnited States BachAndrás Schiff, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 11.4.2013 (DA)

Bach: English Suites, BWV 806–811

Bach wrote the English Suites much earlier in his life than his other sets of keyboard dances. The French Suites were concluded around 1725, the Partitas later that decade, but the florid English Suites were most likely written around 1715. There is nothing especially ‘English’ about them, although preludes were popular in England at the time, and in their general sound they owe much more to the music of the Channel’s southern coast.

Even so, they contain some of Bach’s most purely thrilling keyboard writing, particularly in the fiercely dramatic Second, Third, and Sixth suites. There is no convincing scheme to their numbering or ordering, heard two nights earlier in the same hall, and with their preludes and extended sarabandes these suites are much longer than their ‘French’ counterparts. Whereas in his French Suites,  András Schiff played through the entire set without a break, here he placed an intermission between after the Fourth suite, leaving the mammoth Fifth and Sixth for later. The encore was nearly as long as the earlier concert’s Italian Concerto, though: this time it was the ‘Chromatic’ Fantasia and Fugue, which Schiff also played in WQXR’s Greene Space the night prior.

This concert again saw Schiff at the height of his considerable powers, with playing full of wit, variety, ornamental sparkle, and this time around a greater tendency to underline Bach’s darker moments. Here even more than in the French Suites there was a sense of spontaneity only possible with lifelong immersion in Bach’s music, a consequent knowledge of what expressive interventions it can take and what it cannot. Schiff’s sense of invention never jars: it’s always unpredictable, and it always makes you smile.

The four minor-key suites were most enthralling. That’s not to say that the First and Fourth suites were any less impressive. The First charmed throughout, from the dainty flow of its prélude to the tiptoeing twirls of its first bourrée (excitingly juxtaposed with its more menacing counterpart). The Fourth was more self-serious, although that didn’t mean a lack of merriment in a prélude, or the bugle calls and horn trills of its galloping gigue. But there was a quiet dignity to its almost chorale-like sarabande, played without ornamentation, and a gentle repose to its allemande.

After the plain, unhurried First, the Second was torn into, altogether more demonic. The allemande seemed almost to plead with its overlapping duet, and the first bourrée danced a grotesque highwire of death. If that gigue lacked the impetuous fires of a Martha Argerich, it still hit home with its detached articulation and relentless runs of notes.

The Third and Fifth ratcheted the tension up a few notches. Bach’s music is rarely ironic, but the prélude to the Third certainly sounded that way in Schiff’s hands, its bounce in major key sections barely concealing the terrors of the minor. The voids of the sarabande have rarely sounded so desolate to my ears, shorn of ornaments and all the more powerful for clear voicing of chords and harmonic rhythm. If the gavottes were delicate, the musette swishing with frills, they could not convince: their lightness was dismissed by a gigue-tarantella that scurried and threatened in arachnid fashion.

The Fifth, meanwhile, looked forward to Bach’s later works. The prélude’s fugal lines constantly shifted emphasis, adapting and reacting to others in tone and mood, all the while welding their contrapuntal eagerness to a more Italian sensibility. The endless melody of the sarabande similarly owed a great deal to Scarlatti, while the fairy dust of the first passepied rubbished the idea that you cannot produce colour in Bach’s music on the piano without employing the sustaining pedal. It was the gigue, though, as in all of these suites, that pushed you back in your seat, with its torrential downward pressures, its twisted chromaticism, and its inverted second section almost perverse in its logic.

Schiff reserved his grandest tones for D minor Sixth suite. Ornaments were now left behind, entirely subsumed into the written flow of insistent dissonance. The impulsive voicing of lines here reminded one that it might be easy to hear the Bach in Mahler, but it is much harder to bring out the Mahler in Bach – and so rewarding when it happens. The allemande wandered in a dream world, dazed, while the courante ran constantly, as if fleeing. The sarabande cut harshly, but had its necessarily gentle side. Frank staccato marked the first gavotte, set against the music box prettiness of its partner.

But the gigue was on another interpretive level entirely. Not only did it integrate harmonic struggle with long, alarm-like trills and mechanised semiquavers, it also found something I’d never noticed in the music: how its successive phrases of four quavers strive to coalesce around a single pattern. They come backwards, upside down, always similar in their intervals when not simply moving up or down in scales. And Schiff revealed why, as he built the music toward something transcendent, thumping out the answer the last time that the pattern came in chords of two notes. In all that chromatic turmoil, there’s a moment instantly recognizable from the final part of The Art of Fugue or Von Himmel hoch, and in homages from Schumann to Schoenberg. Four notes in succession, which when written out in German name the miracle that never dims: B-A-C-H.

David Allen