András Schiff’s Gold Standard Account of the Goldberg Variations

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 50, J. S. Bach: Sir András Schiff (piano), Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.8.2015 (LJ).

Prom 50 CR BBC_Chris Christodoulou_3-Sfchiff
Andras Schiff BBC Prom 50 c Chris Christodoulou

J.S. Bach, Goldberg’Variations, BWV 988.

Following on from Alina Ibragimova’s performance of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the second of three Bach concerts – the Goldberg Variations performed by Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff – was an unforgettable night of very fine musicianship from start to finish.

Originally written for harpsichord, the Goldberg Variations were first published in 1741. Its name alludes to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg who was possibly the first performer of this masterpiece of the variation form. Perhaps the only other composition which rivals the complexity of the variation form is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. In his biography of Bach J. N. Forkel outlines the genesis of Bach’s work as follows:

“[…] the Count [Kaiserling] was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. … Once the Count mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.

Hence Bach, who thought himself most able to fulfil this wish, set about composing the 30 perpetually iterative variations.”

In an interview for The Guardian on 6 August of this year, Schiff referred to the form and atmosphere of the piece in threes. The thirty variations structured into ten groups of three express three main elements running through the work which Schiff described as “physical, emotional and intellectual”. Schiff added that “Bach gives us the sensation of the joy of life, the joy of movement”, something Schiff gave his audience at the Royal Albert Hall.

Schiff’s style differs from that of Perahia (prominent and intellectual), Hewitt (inventive and with flair), Kempff (stripped of ornamentation), and Gould (shorn of repetitions and mathematically clear); Schiff awakens the listener’s imagination in his extraordinary colouring of each phrase. Embellishing repeats, remaining focussed and precise in the quicksilver hand-crossing passages, maintaining a consistent rhythm, and picking up on Bach’s wit (particularly in the spirited Variation 23), Schiff’s performance was kaleidoscopic.

Opening with a measured, clear and spacious tempo; Schiff decluttered a piece which can sound fussy and overwrought, effectively distilling each note. With a light touch on the left hand (particularly in the early Variations), Schiff gradually built tension and depth, giving the work a sense of progression and movement. Shrewd interchange between staccato and cantabile, piano and fortissimo on the left-hand removed any plodding monotony. In particular, Schiff’s feathery touch in the dances gave the work a courtly, Baroque feel: rather than being laboured and intense, Schiff’s rendition was energetic and invigorated.

In Variation 14, described by Glenn Gould as “certainly one of the giddiest bits of neo-Scarlatti-ism imaginable” (the composition is often thought to be influenced by Scarlatti’s Essercizi of 1738), Schiff played with audacity and aplomb. With its ornamentation, trills, and great leaps between registers, this variation offered Schiff the opportunity to be daring and adventurous before plunging into the wonderful Variation 15, simultaneously to end the first half of the piece and begin the second with an open fifth. The first of the three G minor variations, this melancholy canon at the fifth in 2/4 time is tender and sorrowful. Contrasting with the previous variation, Gould describes the atmosphere here as: “severe, rigorous, beautiful, moving, and anguished”. With a slow pace and sustained notes, Schiff added ‘thoughtful’ to Gould’s list.

Following the precedent of the 14th and 15th Variations, the sombre 21st follows a rapid 20th Variation. The second of the minor Variations, number 21 is elegant and moving. In the last of the minor Variations (number 25) Schiff created a feeling of one who endlessly strives for tranquillity even acquiescence, derived from Bach’s pattern of hope followed by disappointment. An exquisitely unsettling sense of incompletion which tantalised the listener ensued. As Peter Williams wrote: “the beauty and dark passion of this variation make it unquestionably the emotional high point of the work”. Wanda Landowska described Variation 25 as “The Black Pearl”; Schiff played it with an appropriately angst-ridden terseness. In this variation Schiff was more heavy-handed, extracting the laden conflict at its core. As Schiff himself says:

“One can never get tired of it: Bach’s freshness, spirituality, virtuosity and his variety of characters never fail to amaze me. The great minor-key variations (especially No. 25) bring us into the world of the Passions, while others invite us to dance. No-one combines the sacred and the secular like Bach does.”

Maximising the range of dynamic contrast, sheer virtuosity was on display in Variations 28 and 29. With lightning speed Schiff sounded direct, assertive and confident before turning to the Quodlibet and resolving the piece by returning to the almost-forgotten Aria. Schiff’s consistent verve and variety gave the persistent circularity of the work a sense of newness and occasion.

Performing this piece on the piano enabled Schiff to create a rounded, full sound. Discreetly using the sustaining pedal and with intelligent fingering (requiring much dexterity and ingenuity), Schiff managed to blend fidelity to Bach’s clear articulation with a more resonant timbre and more extensive dynamics. Perhaps London’s Wigmore Hall or Cardiff’s Dora Stoutzker Hall would be better venues for such an intimate and intricate piece, however, Schiff managed first to quell then summon the audience so that not even the dullest groan of a vibrating phone could upset the mood of concentration Schiff singlehandedly created.

Schiff was impressive on many levels; not least for playing the Variations without a score sitting on the piano. I believe this familiarity allowed Schiff to play with his ears not his eyes. At times motionless and at others moving with agility to the rhythms of the piece, Schiff embodied Bach’s composition. His attention to the different textures in the repeated sections of the Variations was filled with subtle permutations that enhanced the work as a whole and kept the audience at the edge of their seats from the first variation to the last. I now look forward to Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Six Cello Suites, the last of the trio of Bach concerts at this year’s Proms, on September 5th.

Lucy Jeffery.

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