Schiff in Kaleidoscopic Bach Partitas

United StatesUnited States Bach, Partitas for Keyboard: András Schiff (piano), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 6.10.2013 (HS)

András Schiff, who famously avoids a modern piano’s sustain pedal when he plays Bach, managed to draw a stunning array of colors in a nearly three-hour marathon of all six Partitas for Keyboard Sunday in San Francisco’s cavernous Davies Hall. This was the penultimate recital in his year-long Bach series, which concludes this coming Sunday with another monster program of both Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The man shows no fear of a challenge.

By rearranging the order and saving the more expansive fourth and sixth for after intermission, Schiff made the first half into a little tour of the national styles Bach referenced in these keyboard works. Opening with the fifth and its nod to Vivaldi’s Italy in its initial ritornello-form “praeambulum,” and closing with the second (which explored the florid French style) emphasized the wide range of music Bach squeezed into these pieces; the manuscript’s title page reads, “for music lovers, to delight their spirits.” These are far from mere keyboard exercises. Each movement brims with invention and surprising shifts of rhythm and harmony.

Schiff reveled in the virtuosity required, such as in the finger-busting Capriccio that closes No. 2. After running the piano equivalent of a half-marathon in the first half, this final sprint found the pianist astonishingly fresh. This single piece could be held up as Exhibit A for Schiff’s insistence on playing Bach without pedal. The clarity and purity of the music shone through brilliantly, while Schiff’s dexterity created subtle phrasing even as the notes flew past.

He does this, it should be noted, in a no-nonsense style that favors brisk tempos, even in the Sarabandes. Usually played with a stately air, these dance movements are generally thought of as the slow movements in the series of dances that make up Bach’s suites. Not for Schiff. The pace barely eased off, which was especially apparent in the Sarabande of No. 2. It was just a bit slower than the lively Courante that preceded it and the Rondeau that followed, making for a breathless sequence that concluded with that Capriccio mentioned earlier. The Sarabande in No. 1 reveled in its single legato line against a persistently moving bass line, creating breathtaking intimacy.

Slower playing, showing just how lyrical pedal-free keyboard work can be, provided several of the other highlights of the first half’s world tour. The Passapied in No. 5—the first work in the series—floated in the air like a cloud, and the gently cordial first minuet of No. 3 couldn’t have been more gem-like.

The rearranged order also increased the chromatic writing as the evening continued. This became clear in the second half, with the longer and more complex No. 4 and No. 6 making ever more colorful music. The Sarbande in No. 4, which Bach extended into something very close to a sonata form, was a mini-concerto in its own right. After a delicate little minuet, the fleet Gigue upped the ante even further.

No. 6, in which Bach finally gives us a stately, opulent Sarabande, found Schiff loosening his collar and getting even more expressive. By the time he got to the final movement, a Gigue that seems to keep spiraling upward, he was really rolling. Technically and expressively, it put quite the cap on the long evening. The light and quick encore was a charmingly quiet performance of the first two-part invention (in C major). And no, he did not play the whole book of 15.

Given all this music, it never felt as if it were getting to be too much. And that, in the end, might be most impressive of all.

Harvey Steiman