Schiff, Bach—and 3,000 People Listening Breathlessly

United StatesUnited States Bach: András Schiff (piano), co-presented by San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances, Davies Hall, San Francisco. 14.4.2013 (HS)

Bach: French Suites, BVW 812-817; Overture in the French Style, BVW 831

San Francisco audiences are hearing some beautifully conceived and articulated Bach piano playing as András Schiff works his way through some of the pinnacles of the literature over two seasons here in San Francisco. He is playing the same programs in New York and Los Angeles (plus a few extra performances of the Well-Tempered Klavier—both books—earlier in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Vancouver and Seattle). Still to come next are the English Suites, and later this year the partitas and an extraordinary double bill of the Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Sunday a packed Davies Hall audience heard the French Suites. (You can read David Allen’s review of Schiff’s New York performance of them here.)

Schiff, never a demonstrative figure on stage, seemed exceptionally still during the entire performance, only occasionally allowing himself to lean a bit left or right. In sunnier musical moments he could smile and look off into the distance. But basically, he channeled all his energy into the music. He played with uncommon elegance, savoring each of Bach’s gestures without overdoing them in the least. Accuracy, too, was simply a given. There was no showing off—only virtuosity solely in service of the music.

The six French Suites do not lend themselves to grandstanding, anyway. Scholars agree that Bach wrote them as finger exercises for his students, most likely for a very quiet instrument such as a clavichord, not for public performance. And in no way did the composer seem to be imitating French music of the period, either. He simply hung his own music on the forms and a few gestures typical of the French style of the time.

To play the music on a modern piano does offer more opportunity for dynamic expression, and to perform it before nearly 3,000 people listening breathlessly could not have ever occurred to Bach. To my ears, however, Schiff’s approach yielded the perfect expression. His disdain for using pedal in Bach focuses us intently on the finger work that was the composer’s purpose, after all, but Schiff’s touch creates amazing legato phrases. Finely judged dynamics bring out the shapes of the contrapuntal lines and underline the dance rhythms of the individual movements.

The result is music of lapidary clarity that rises and falls as if with the human breath. This approach also allows us to hear how differently Bach treats basically the same structure from one suite to the next. Each one begins with an allemande, sometimes languid but usually sprightly, followed by a lively courante, which could be rhythmically complex in some suites, more straightforward in others. A slow sarabande follows (and Schiff made certain none of them ever came close to dragging). Each suite ends with a gigue, some of which hop like little kangaroos while others come off as more subtle. Before the gigue, however, each suite gets an extra two or three dance movements—in some a minuet, a gavotte or a bourée, in others an air or perhaps a polonaise. The individual personalities of each dance came through clearly.

A few examples will suffice. The Allemande in Suite No. 4 flowed easily and freely against a smoothly articulated bass line. The three-part counterpoint in Suite No. 5’s Allemande couldn’t be more different, and Schiff simply celebrated that difference, gleefully unfurling the majestic and complex music with a palpable sense of triumph. The Sarabande in Suite No. 3—so delicate and intricate—contrasted dramatically with the overt and ornate Sarabande in No. 4.

Bach seems to write phrases that follow a circuitous route for eight or twelve or sixteen bars before coming to a stop, taking a breath and moving on to the next one. Throughout, Schiff seemed to embrace this style, shaping each phrase into one-sentence paragraphs, as if to offer them to us as a series of miniatures instead of trying to create a single vast canvas. And that felt exactly right for this music.

He also signaled that he wanted us to refrain from clapping between the six suites by keeping his hands on the keyboard for a few seconds, usually waiting patiently for coughing to subside before launching into the next suite. Playing without a break made it easier to appreciate what can be subtle differences in character from one suite to the next, and could have taxed an audience’s patience, as the first half lasted ninety minutes. But Schiff’s ability to draw out so many colors—and different varieties of rhythmic pulse—meant that the result was never tiresome.

The second half consisted of The Overture in the French Style, which opens up the tight form of the suites into a more expansive, 30-minute piece. The long first movement—an overture in form and source of the title—alternates between elaborately ornamented slower passages and a series of faster, livelier contrapuntal sections. This was much more extroverted music than that of the suites, and a friskier Schiff finished the final downward arpeggio and bass note with a flourish.

Schiff’s generosity in programming stretched Sunday’s concert to two hours and forty minutes, including a ten-minute encore of the Italian Concerto, the companion piece to the French overture in Bach’s Klavier-Übung Book II. He actually ended up playing a double encore; audience applause after the five-minute first movement allowed Schiff to take a bow, stroll offstage for a brief breather, and return to conclude with the fugue—to thunderous applause each time. And well deserved it was.

Harvey Steiman