András Schiff’s Bach Doesn’t Quite Hit the Mark This Time

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: András Schiff (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 18.12.2013 (GDn)

Bach: Well-tempered Clavier, Book II


András Schiff picked up the 48 more or less where he left off with the first book at the end of November (review). Now, as then, he gave a focussed but flowing account, balancing his habitually detached touch against the legato impulse in his voice leading. Extremes, both of tempo and dynamic, were avoided – as was the sustain pedal – and contrast between the movements was achieved through subtle gradations of touch and tone. This time, though, it didn’t all add up, at least in a significant minority of the movements. And, as it turned out, the (relative) failures proved far more revealing than the outright successes.

Schiff clearly takes risks in live performance: even just the atmosphere that his playing generates demonstrates that. And usually it all comes together, the gambles pay off, and balance is achieved between the independent and concurrent forces seemingly given free rein, until Bach’s cadential formulas intervene and bring everything back into line. On several occasions this evening, though, that didn’t quite happen, and suddenly all the workings in Schiff’s delicate equations were laid bare.

Structure, it turns out, is a subsidiary concern. That’s probably not such a surprise, as he usually seems to be living in the moment. A fugue, for example, will start out with a slow and deliberate statement of the theme, and then rapidly accelerate into the development. The ending eventually imposes order, as if by some external force. In some of the fugues this evening, the ending seemed almost arbitrary. Schiff was so involved in the counterpoint that it seemed he wanted to continue uninterrupted for another ten minutes, yet Bach was calling time after just two or three. That sense of over-arching unity, that held together the two-hour span of the First Book in November, was revealed here to be the result more of his continual concentration and focus than on any specific structuring of the music.

Counterpoint is one of the most interesting features of Schiff’s Bach. He often brings in new voices as if they’re from a completely different work. In some of the preludes we’ll hear a running semiquaver line in the left hand, over which a new melodic idea is introduced in the right. But the tone, dynamic, and even tempo of the two will be completely separate. Then, by some undisclosed magic, they will swiftly but deftly merge them into a contrapuntal synthesis. Occasionally this evening that didn’t happen, and Schiff found himself playing in two different styles and at two different speeds. The only solution was to abandon both and abruptly switch to a new texture, often at the expense of a split-second hesitation. The effect was like listening to a recording and suddenly coming across a bad edit between takes.

Admittedly, these episodes were few, and in a performance that lasted almost three hours, the sheer quantity of perfectly executed music made them a marginal concern. But in Schiff’s traversal of the First Book, a greater consistency was maintained, allowing him to keep the secrets of his musical magic concealed. So what is different this time round? A charitable view might have it that Schiff is simply taking greater risks with this Second Book, a less charitable one that his punishing recital schedule this last month (he has been giving these Bach marathons in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin as well as London throughout December), is beginning to take its toll.

Or perhaps Schiff is saving his interpretive energies for the weekend. His next appearance will be at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, a recital of the Diabelli and Goldberg variations organised to mark his 60th birthday. No doubt the temptation then will be to play it safe, but it’s unlikely Schiff will succumb. He’s a habitual risk-taker, so expect the unexpected.

Gavin Dixon

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