András Schiff: Winding Down as He Nears the End of His Bach Project

United StatesUnited States Bach: András Schiff, Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium, New York, 30.10.2013 (SSM)

Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829
Partita No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827
Partita No. 1 in B-fat Major, BWV 825
Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826
Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828
Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830

There are few pianists capable of filling the space left by the early demise of Glenn Gould. Angela Hewitt would be one such pianist. András Schiff would be another.

Schiff shares Gould’s preference for fleet speeds. They both aim for a clear separation of contrapuntal lines aided by a minimal use of pedals or, in Schiff’s case, no pedals at all. Schiff, like the others, avoids legatos that might cover up hidden voices. Both pianists in their later years felt there was enough difference between their earlier performances and their current ones to warrant a second run-through. Gould had the opportunity to rerecord the Goldberg Variations once before his premature death. Schiff is in the process of reevaluating and rethinking his relationship to Bach during his Bach Project.

The result of Schiff’s go-round, based on his performance of the Partitas here, is somewhat mixed. Tempi were surprisingly consistent with those from his youthful cycle. In fact, his performance here was, if anything, faster, particularly in the virtuosic gavottes and gigues that end most of the Partitas. Given the sheer amount of music played and the fact that every repeat was taken called out for something that might add variety. One such technique would be the implementation of ornamentation. It should be said that Schiff did use some ornamentation, but perhaps it was used too discretely. Given this sparsity and his complete avoidance of the sustain pedal it was not surprising to see many members of the audience leave at the intermission. Bach himself wouldn’t think of playing the whole set in one sitting. In fact, the opposite may have been true: Bach intended these dances to serve as pedagogical keyboard exercises and not music that stands on its own.

Schiff’s playing came to life in each Partita’s opening and closing movements. The Praeludiums are not restricted in terms of rhythms and tempi as are the other sections written in dance form. The strongly accented sinfonias from the second Partita and the ouverture to the fourth Partita were given powerful readings.The other Praeludiums and the Fantasia are invitations to the performer to improvise or, at least, play the written score as if it were being improvised. In these introductions, Schiff was at his most inspired.

Similarly, Schiff dug into the closing gigues, playing them with a sharp and well-defined rhythm, keeping each line separate and varying the emphasis by bringing out the dominant motifs as they moved from hand to hand. The final gigue from the sixth Partita was played with so much conviction and authority that I imagined Schiff getting his second wind and continuing to play in this vein.

Schiff is celebrating his sixtieth birthday with what he calls the Bach Project: a series of six recitals covering Bach’s major keyboard works played at various concert halls. The series has its conclusion with a performance of the Goldberg Variations at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, November 5th. Just so that we do not think of him as a slouch, he will also play Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations. For the marathoner he is, Schiff is probably thinking of the Beethoven as nothing more than a long encore.


Stan Metzger

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