United Kingdom Bach: András Schiff (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 26.11.2013 (GDn)
Partita No 5 in G major, BWV 829
Partita No 3 in A minor, BWV 827
Partita No 1 in B flat 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
After the solemn ritual of András Schiff’s ‘Forty-eight’, Book 1 on Saturday (review), this evening’s Bach Partita cycle seemed a more playful affair. The lighter textures allowed him to demonstrate better the fine nuances of his graceful technique. The freer structure gave him more space to pace and structure according to his own, very narrative approach. And the wider stylistic variety between the works, and between the movements, meant that contrasts between colours, textures and moods, all expertly conveyed, could be articulated at all levels of the music.
There were many similarities as well, of course. Like Saturday’s two-hour marathon, this too was an incredible feat of stamina and technical precision. This time we got an interval, but the concert ran to almost three hours, and Schiff never dropped a beat. The interpretive insights of his performance are what stick in the memory, so much so that it is easy to forget the sheer technical precision and keen artistic focus upon which they were all based. And again he performed everything from memory, and with a fluid, supple touch that made it look like the music was coming out of him as naturally as breathing. The interpretations he gives are distinctive and accomplished, but they’re founded on a pianism that very few of his colleagues could even approach.
Schiff performed the Partitas in the order 5, 3, 1, 2, 4, 6. This gave a key structure similar to that of the ’48 performance, with the key centre gradually rising through the works. Performing the Partitas in this order gives the key sequence: G, a, Bb, c, D, e. But, unlike on Saturday, the focus this evening was almost always on the movement at hand. Within the Partitas, the movements followed on closely from one to another, but this seemed intended more to highlight the contrast from one to the next rather than to create any sense of large-scale structure.
The faster dance movements found Schiff at his most playful. Here, the Übung aspect of the music really shone through, not in challenging his technique, of course, but rather in demonstrating its many facets. The hand crossing passages were delivered with real panache, but a sense of independence governed the relationship between the two, even when with the left hand on the left and the right hand on the right. Schiff finds both clarity and sophistication in every texture Bach presents. So simple, two-part passages are given with different colourings in each hand; for example a rich lyrical melody in the right over a pizzicato rhythmic bass in the left. But even when Schiff uses staccato articulation and louder dynamics to pick out bass lines or inner parts, the round, richness of his tone prevents anything from ever sounding harsh. The final movements of the First and Second Partitas, the first a Gigue, the second a Capriccio, were real highlights, and while both are well-known, Schiff was always able to inject an element of unpredictability into the music.
That, in no small part, was a result of his interesting rubato, a feature of almost every movement. Schiff seems to treat this music as a story to be told, with gradual tempo changes intensifying the mood as phrases develop, and sudden downward tempo shifts switching the mood from one phrase to the next. Many of the faster movements will begin at a brisk pace, and then, as the passage work and runs get underway, he will gradually increase the speed even further. For the listener, it feels like a dangerous game, but Schiff is always in control, and when a new statement of the theme or some counter-theme comes in, he will suddenly drop the tempo and move to a cooler tone colour.
All this happens in the slow movements too, and it is here that Schiff’s approach to tempo, timbre and articulation really pay off. The Aria and Air movements in these works are dominated by graceful and free melodies, all played out over skilfully constructed harmonies and bass lines. Schiff always allows the melody to lead, his tempos elastic but never capricious. Rubato shapes the lines, but he always avoids sentimentality. He accelerates into rising arcs, and pulls back into cadences. Yet nothing here is sentimental or predictable, and although continually changing, his tempos always relate to an underlying pace and an intuitive sense of proportion and structure: Exquisite beauty achieved through the perfect combination of freedom and form.