Sir András Schiff, The Bridgewater Hall (International Concert Series), 13 November 2017.
As one of the leading interpreters of Bach’s (amongst many other composers’) keyboard works, Sir András Schiff needs little to no introduction. His is a career littered with awards, recognition, residencies, influential recordings and impressive performances throughout the world.
Playing in Manchester as part of the Bridgewater Hall’s International Concert Series, Schiff owns, nay dominates, the piano this evening being in absolute command of the instrument and Bach’s music from start to finish. To witness this feat of pianistic concentration and radiance, or perhaps supremacy is the better word, is both a great joy and astounding. Schiff’s poise at the keyboard is one of cerebral, intellectual consideration, of wonder, and emotional, strongly felt intensity; this both tranfers to and issues from the three works he plays over the course of a two and a half hour demonstration of his own mastery and Bach’s seemingly endless creative resources in melodic, rhythmic, tonal and theoretical senses. These three works share a similar point of origin coming from Bach’s volumes of Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercises) all composed in the mid-1700s. The Italian Concerto BWV 971 and the French Overture BWV 831 to be heard first and second formed a pair and were published in 1735. The Goldberg Variations BWV 988 came six years later as its own volume in 1741.
Beginning with the Italian Concerto then we hear immediately the cosmopolitan inclinations of Bach’s music from his position as a provincial Kappelmeister in Anhalt-Cöthen. Like all the pieces heard tonight Bach composed the Concerto for a two-manual harpsichord, partly because he wanted to mimic the differing multi-instrumental facets of a true Italian Concerto and felt the harpsichord could do this well enough, and partly because pianos were still in their extremely nascent days at this time. Instrumentally Bach’s music mirrors both the tutti and solo parts and formally the fast-slow-fast structure of the movements captures the essence of these kinds of concertos. Schiff’s use of the grand piano to interpret these works is not unusual, piano performances of the Bach’s keyboard music are absolutely accepted, usual and canonical, but what is unusual is his eschewing of the sustain pedal when playing Bach, a technique he has become known for. Watching Schiff’s feet as he plays they don’t seem to go near any of the pedals in fact, excepting perhaps the lightest of glances once in a while to keep order. This only makes his subtle drawing out the different dynamic elements of the Italian Concerto and the rest of Bach’s music even more unbelievable. Here the two outer ritornellos are adroit, neat, witty, particularly the third movement with its bouncy repeated motif. The middle arioso-like andante is delicate and spacious. Despite its grandeur and stateliness coming in at approximately ten minutes duration this piece is mere aperitif for the more substantial ones to follow.
Up next is the French Overture. The Overture, scored in eleven movements that take around thirty minutes to perform in full, obviously aims to mimic elements of the French style of the Baroque era and composers such as Couperin and Lully. However such works and their sequences of dance forms often accompanied or stemmed from operas. It was a particularly Germanic compositional quirk that led to them becoming independent pieces. As Martin Geck observes: ‘the practice of composing an overture along with a series of dance movements, with no relation to an opera or any of its ballet scenes – in other words, creating orchestral works meant for concert performance from the outset – goes back to the German composers. In 1682 Johann Sigismund Kusser and in 1693 Heinrich Erlebach published such works in the French manner and mode.’ Knowing this it is very much appropriate and inevitable that such works have transferred to the concert grand in more modern times as Bach’s exercises have transcended that too diminutive label to become staple keyboard concert repertoire. Again Schiff’s playing flows so naturally throughout the course of each movement that the playing feels like an organic extension of the pianist, or even that Bach himself might be present and of course, in a sense, he is. The counter-weighting and symbiosis between both hands is magnificent and as Schiff works his way through the movements he shows that he is sensitive to the character of each specific dance form bringing to light each one’s nuances and essence.
Finally for the duration of the second half we hear the Goldberg Variations in full. Again Schiff takes his time before striking the well-known, beautiful first notes of the opening aria as he enters the requisite mental space for the task at hand. Throughout his delivery of the Variations he also takes quite prolonged pauses in strategic places between them to let the previous one’s musical dust settle or to maybe rest his mind and hands and prepare for the next. This brings an added drama and an understated, cool showmanship. His occasional wiping of sweat from his brow though betrays the effort and energy going into this performance. Watching Schiff’s hands, reflected and strangely disembodied in the jet black of the grand piano’s lacquer, is often mesmerizing and this becomes especially apparent in the variations here that demand incredibly tricky and intricate instances of hand-crossing. His accenting and instinctual sense of when to tear into a phrase or to let it breathe allows for the illumination of each Variation’s own specific sound-world.
Bach (apocryphally) composed the work in Leipzig to try and help his patron Count Kaiserling with the bouts of insomnia from which he suffered. Kaiserling had brought with him to Leipzig the keyboardist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg in order to have Bach teach him, and Goldberg often performed for the Count when he was affected by the condition. Kaiserling expressed a desire for Bach to compose him some bedtime music. The Variations were the result of this request and named after the pianist who would play them. It’s a nice story but probably not true, however the music does bring the listener under its spell and gently lures them into a very tranquil place. Looking around during the performance there are a few audience members across the hall with their heads back and eyes closed, appreciating the changing textures, rich sonorities and doing nothing else of course.
Admittedly as well as pleasurable this is also a demanding work for the audience to listen to mostly due to its long duration, but it is testament to Schiff’s elegant playing and Bach’s sheer inventiveness that not at any point does it drag and rather unceasingly fascinates and enthralls, and does that same thing many times over. Bach’s thirty variations split into ten groups of three that contain a piece similar to a toccata, a character piece and a polyphonic canon. They flow liquidly and delicately from the piano and out over the hall. It is really a kind of sadness mixed with contentment that casts itself across the listener when Schiff lowers his hands down onto his thighs, holds the pose for a while and then signals, with a kind of comically low-key ‘That’s it’, gesture that his playing and the concert is over.
By the end Schiff brings the entire hall out of its floored captivation and to its feet, such is the impressiveness of what the audience has just heard and the weight of the performance they have just witnessed. Ultimately there is something incredibly satisfying and affirming in hearing somebody who gets it, or has figured it out through years of devotion and attention, and carries that through in their artistry when they play such great Bach works. Schiff provides passage or access into musical truth and it’s enough to be allowed to be a momentary, inert shareholder in that, to experience a glance of it. This is a concert and a recital that will linger long in the memory and impress upon those present the enrichment of pure music, especially so perhaps for the young boy at the front of the stalls being guided through the Goldberg Variations’ score page by page by his mother as Schiff plays, for any other kind of aspiring or used to be aspiring musician in the audience, or for those who purchase CDs in the gift shop keeping the till popping in and out with a ding and the receipt printer chugging incessantly before the concert and during the interval.