Bach in French Style from András Schiff

United StatesUnited States Bach: András Schiff (piano), Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 9.4.2013 (DA)

Bach: French Suites, BWV 812–817; Overture in the French Style in B Minor, BWV 831

András Schiff loves marathons, in concert form at least. His concerts are regularly of punishing intensity and drawn-out length, but he brings such a charming mix of ascetic rigour and cheeky nonchalance to them that you can’t help but be enthralled In his Bach Project, a two year exploration of Bach’s keyboard works, Schiff has already got through both bookof the Well-Tempered Clavier in New York. This concert, one of the complete English Suites, and another of the complete Partitas are all just warmups for the maddest programme of them all: the Goldberg Variations as prelude to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Throw in a performance of two of the concertos with the New York Philharmonic, and it would be hard to ask for more.

In the early days of his recording career, Schiff’s Bach was rather idiosyncratic, as if he were a smoother, sprightlier Glenn Gould. Now there is no more assured or more convincing pianist playing such a wide range of Bach’s repertoire in the concert hall. Schiff demands concentration from his listeners, but the effort is worth it. This came together as a profoundly satisfying musical experience.

Surely few pianists would dare programme the complete French Suites as the first half of a concert. After all, Bach never intended them to be played in such a way, and unlike the Partitas – which Schiff plays in the order 5-3-1-2-4-6 – there is no satisfying way to rearrange them. Even if they did, fewer pianists still would play the suites with all their repeats still intact. Such things are clearly of no concern to Schiff, and he went a step further, refusing to break for coughing, let alone applause. The hour and a half of unbroken Bach passed in a flash.

In the French Suites, as so often, Bach takes a particular style from elsewhere in Europe and makes it his own. The ornamentation might betray the music’s origins, but this is still Bach in his full glory, with immaculate voice-leading, harmonic delight, contrapuntal force, and so on. These are not full-blown suites on the level of the Partitas, though. For one thing, they lack preludes. But here Schiff invested the opening allemandes with such interpretative depth that they acted like preludes anyway. Take the airy, overlapping waves of the static Second, which seemed almost to come straight from the Cello Suites (heard last week in a performance from Carter Brey). Or the obsessive Third, or the unravelling lyricism of the Fifth, or the complete freedom of the almost improvisatory Sixth. That approach gave the suites a much more fulfilling arc within themselves than one often hears, especially when coupled to  gigues that somehow combined fizz with weight. What helped further was Schiff’s immaculately long sense of line, both inside and among individual dances. Some of these suites – the First – are linked thematically, but others are not, and to find such a sense of architecture is extraordinary.

Schiff plays in paragraphs, but always lives in the clauses and sentences within them. Melodies and mottos emerge, unfold themselves, enfold others, and return to textures already full of life. He’ll latch onto a phrase or an articulation and with seeming spontaneity take it out to play (as in the unpredictable menuet to the Sixth, or  the neurotically insistent one-tone motto in the gigue of the Fifth). He’ll use ornaments to launch into phrases, weaving them into textures as if they were completely natural. Here he found new delights in each of the suites, showing how supple these repeated forms really can be, whether through rhythmic instability (the courante of the Third) or completely different soundworlds (the stately poise of the opening chords to the Sixth’s sarabande). By doing that he also pointed to Bach’s other works. Some of the allemandes could have come straight from the Well-Tempered Clavier, the sarabandes from the Passions. And he welded all six suites together so that the exaggerated plainness of the Sixth’s concluding gigue seemed to echo the sounds of the First’s allemande, magically transformed.

The second half was given over to the B Minor Overture, an even more eager imitation and surpassing of the French style. Here was an even finer performance, one that gave the impression of a pianist entirely free from encumbrances technical or emotional. Schiff drew an astonishing range of colour from his Steinway, even without the use of the sustaining pedal, painting not with kaleidoscopic brightness but with the lived-in hues of an oil painting. The overture to the Overture rightly took all its energy from ornamentation, with power and legato to spare. A mobile phone after the gavottes drew a bemused look from Schiff before he launched manically into the passepieds. The sarabande flowed with unerring ease, full of light and shade, before a gigue and ‘echo’ overflowing with fun.

It’s not just Schiff’s formal programmes that are marathons. His encores too can test the stamina. (He has been known to follow the Diabelli Variations with the whole second movement of the Op.111 sonata.) This one made total logical sense. The French Overture was published as the second half of Bach’s second Clavier-Übung: the first half is the Italian Concerto. Schiff delivered its three movements with staggering brilliance and scarcely conceivable zest.

David Allen