András Schiff’s Monumental Performance of Two Great Piano Monuments

United StatesUnited States Bach, Beethoven: András Schiff, Carnegie Hall, New York, 5.11.2013 (SSM)

Bach: The Goldberg Variations
Beethoven: The Diabelli Variations 

It has been nearly sixty years since Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations and forever changed the way we listen to Bach. There have been many great musicians before Gould who tried to revive interest in Bach and in particular the Goldberg Variations, but none were able to accomplish what Gould would with the release of his forty-five minute 1955 recording. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations received their first performance at Carnegie Hall in 1912, yet Bach’s Goldberg Variations had to wait another thirty years until Ralph Kirkpatrick played them on a harpsichord at what is now Weill Recital Hall. At that time, Olin Downes, the music critic for The New York Times, stated that this music seemed to provide pleasure to “musicians,” “connoisseurs” and “the musical elite of the city.”

It’s not that there has been a dearth of pianists who’ve played and even specialized in Bach. In the 1930s, Edwin Fisher’s performances of Bach were the models for his generation, and his style of playing Bach was passed on to some of his students such as Alfred Brendel and David Barenboim, neither one known as a great Bach interpreter. Wanda Landowska became the next Bach advocate, but she was stymied by her choice of an instrument (a Pleyel harpsichord) that overpowered Bach and had little flexibility in sound without resorting to its clunky manual stops. Rosalyn Tureck treated Bach with a zealot’s insistence on total adherence to Bach’s testament. Glenn Gould’s arrival was for her the coming of the Anti-Bach. Gould’s performances were idiosyncratic, iconoclastic and irreverent, just the opposite of Tureck’s.

András Schiff’s studio sessions for his first Goldberg Variations recording took place in December 1982, barely three months after Gould’s death. Schiff was a natural to continue in the Gould tradition. His tempi were fleet without being excessive, his ability to adjust each hand to draw out musical lines was never exaggerated, and his choice of taking repeats was never arbitrary. He took over Gould’s role as the Bach interpreter par excellence and only Angela Hewitt has come close to taking the title from him.

The András Schiff who appeared last night for his final recital in his “Bach Project” cycle was a different pianist from both the one who made his earlier recordings (1982, 2001) and from the person appearing a few nights ago on stage performing Bach’s Six Partitas. At last night’s concert, there was no tepidness, no lack of variety that would have dispersed at intermission a good part of the audience as it had done last week. In fact, from what I could see, few people left at intermission, considering that both the Bach and Beethoven works are considerably more demanding than the Partitas.

Whatever is it was that made the difference between these two appearances, Schiff was in top form for this mammoth undertaking. There was some magic that he had last night that resulted in one of those rare events that is the goal of every artist in any performing art; and the reason why we keep going to events such as this in the hope of  experiencing exactly that same magic. Each variation was crafted and shaped in such a way that it stood on its own, yet was also a necessary part of the whole that made it more than the sum of its parts. This was the kind of playing that can only come from the complete merging of the performer and the work, and is complemented by the audience’s willingness to let go. Schiff’s conceptual grasp of the work’s structure was tectonic in nature. Pauses between movements varied from brief to long depending upon how much space Schiff felt was needed between each variation.

There was surprisingly little ornamentation, and when there was it was usually during the da capo of the second section. Every repeat was taken and there was no attempt to go beyond the urtext. The youthful Schiff would have played a repeat an octave higher, arpeggiated chords and used the sustain pedal to get one effect or another. The mature Schiff needed only Bach whose music provided all the effects that a pianist of Schiff’s skills would ever require.

The haunting simplicity of the reappearance of the opening aria that closes the Goldberg Variations is one of the sublime moments in music. Unfortunately, this moment was shattered by premature applause. Here’s Schiff’s take on this lack of respect:

“I would prefer it ideally if there was no applause at the end, just a wonderful silence. Unfortunately there is almost always someone who wants to show how well he knows the piece by applauding at the instant the final note has been played.”  

Beethoven also created a set of unique miniatures open to myriad interpretations by a myriad of pianists, each wanting at one time or another in their career to add their own interpretation to the long list of their predecessors; few have the slightest chance of rising anywhere near the top. (A search of Amazon’s catalogue lists 878 titles for Bach’s Goldberg Variations and 275 for the Diabellli Variations). Any doubts about Schiff’s stamina were swept away with a muscular and full-throated reading. He showed no signs of fatigue, hammering chords with as much intensity at the end as at the beginning. If he rested at times between movements, it was done not to catch his breath, but to give space after the more expressive or lyrical movements.

This time the audience held back their applause until Schiff felt it was the right time to break the mood by lifting his hands from the keyboard.

At the Partitas recital, Schiff may have given the audience a subtle musical statement in the selection of his encore. He chose the brief first-year-piano-student’s C-major Invention from Bach’s pedagogical set of 2-Part Inventions. The simplicity of the encore seemed to imply that if this was all he could play, he was ready to call it a night.

For last night’s encore, he performed the second movement from Beethoven’s Opus 111, not a work that one would ever think of using as an encore, especially after having played the two huge works. If he felt the need to tell the audience that he was barely winded, this eighteen-minute encore surely proved it.

Stan Metzger 


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