Schiff’s Variations: An Embarrassment of Riches

United StatesUnited States Bach, Beethoven: András Schiff (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances and San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 13.10.2013 (HS)

Bach: Goldberg Variations
Beethoven: “Diabelli” Variations

Clocking in at more than 3 hours (including one of the more generous encores you’ll ever hear), András Schiff’s traversal of monumental sets of variations by Bach and Beethoven put the cap on a year-long project to play Bach’s major keyboard works. These Sunday recitals, co-presented by San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers series, have found the Hungarian pianist in superb form—and especially thoughtful in his approach to programming and performance.

This final evening, before a raptly attentive near-capacity Davies Symphony Hall audience, finished up the Bach portion of the project with a distinctively personal performance of the “Goldberg” Variations. For comparison purposes, he moved on after intermission to Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations. Both works were among the two composers’ last for keyboard instruments, and are generally considered pinnacles of the theme-and-variations form. After running that marathon, Schiff still had the oomph to take a deep breath and offer as an encore the set of variations that concludes Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111.

I found the internal logic and masterfully controlled playing in his Bach more rewarding than the more extroverted, showy approach he took to Beethoven. Playing the opening “aria” theme at more of an Andante than the Lento one usually hears, Schiff articulated the ornamentation more as grace notes than as an integral part of the melody. This was a signal that each movement of the Goldberg Variations would offer surprises. Schiff took Bach at his word that these variations were meant to encompass the entirety of the keyboard styles of his time, everything from dance forms and toccatas to a French overture, two-part and three-part inventions and canons, not to mention the occasional fugue. Each one was given a fresh approach.

Taking three pauses in the 30 variations, plus an extended one just before the reiteration of the aria at the end, Schiff underlined what he believes is the musical arc that connects these disparate pieces. It was most evident in tempo relationships that brought together the final series. After the tranquility of No. 22, and the pause, the quicksilver humor of No. 23 kicked off what felt like an extended finale. The pace slowed to float the music in the heavens for a true Adagio in No. 25, but then tempos grew more impulsive. Even in the final one, No. 30, Schiff sidestepped any attempt at majesty in place of a style that felt like good-humored folk-song singing.

There was majesty in the playing, however, which produced one shining moment after another along this colorful route. Differences in touch created distinct tone qualities when melodic fragments appeared in different registers, for example. Especially rewarding were the deft fugue that emerges from the bombastic opening chords of the overture-like No. 16 and the breathtaking flutters of notes up and down the keyboard in No. 28. He seemed to barely touch the keyboard, yet the notes were articulated evenly, the result magical.

In a final thoughtful touch, as he played the reprise of the gentle aria, he gradually omitted more and more of the grace notes and ornamentation. The sense was to strip the music down to its essence.

Schiff plays his Bach without pedal, reasoning that the composer had no idea that such a thing could exist and therefore never needed it in his music. In this pianist’s hands (literally, since no feet are involved) the result can be endlessly inventive. Although he favored crisp staccatos, he achieved remarkable legato playing without benefit of a pedal.

However, the pedal does play a role in Beethoven’s set. Schiff used it with deference, but still took a more forwardly dramatic stance. Bach meant the Goldberg primarily for pedagogy, although he infused the piece with enough variety to make it interesting to play. Beethoven meant the Diabelli to be performed in front of an audience, so it’s full of allusions meant to poke listeners in the ribs or drop their jaws in awe.

Schiff played with the requisite stylistic flourishes, but he seemed less comfortable in this milieu. The banality of the main theme, the bluster of some of the variations (such as the one that quotes Mozart’s opening phrases of The Marriage of Figaro), seemed self-conscious. The beautiful parts, such as the stately No. 14 and the enigmatic harmonies of No. 18, came off as more heartfelt than the buffoonery of Nos. 9 or 19. The high points of this traversal came with the variations requiring pianistic brilliance, such as the dazzling passagework required for No. 10 and the lightning quick staccato chords of No. 27.

All in all, the playing in the encore trumped the Diabelli. It was a canny choice to use the theme and variations of Op. 111, in part because here Beethoven closely reflected ideas from Bach’s Goldberg. He began with what he called an arietta, but it felt in Schiff’s approach like a gentle chorale. As the variations become increasingly complex, they delve into contrapuntal interplay and finger-work every bit as dazzling as that required in the Goldberg. Either Schiff was truly touched by the enthusiastic and endless ovation, or he simply felt more at home in this music. Either way, the concert ended in triumph.

Harvey Steiman