Schiff shows supreme artistry in variations of Bach and Beethoven

November 2, 2013 at 3:13 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andras Schiff performed Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

It was like taking a victory lap after running a marathon.

The dainty minuet that concludes Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which pianist András Schiff performed along with Bach’s Goldberg Variations Friday night at Jordan Hall, left the audience wanting more.

And more they got. His encore, the Arietta movement from the composer’s Piano Sonata Op. 111, itself a set of variations, was the finale to a long but wholly delightful evening.

The concert was the latest installment of the Bach Project, Schiff’s two-season international concert exploration of Bach’s music and the influence it had on composers who followed in the master’s footsteps.

The Goldberg Variations is a goliath in keyboard literature. The aria and thirty variations, broken into sets of ten each, present a vast collection different genres in miniature that, when played together, last well over an hour.

At the keyboard, Schiff strikes a statue-like presence. He moved very little while playing, his fingers left to do the work.

That was the most impressive feature of his performance Friday night. He is capable of rendering the music’s intricate fingerwork with incredible smoothness, all the more impressive as he does not use the sustain pedal. But his playing was equally crisp, his crystalline tone, brisk tempos, well-hewn phrases, and sensitive dynamic range all contributed to a mesmerizing reading of the Goldberg Variations.

Time seemed to stand still as Schiff elegantly traversed the work’s many styles. For the toccata variations, he played with grace. The dance-like pieces, such as the jig in variation seven, were rendered with delicately and supple flow. In the more deliberate inventions and fugues, he pushed and pulled the tempo, giving shape to each phrase. Other variations exploded with a fury of mordents and trills. The most profound of the set, the twenty-fifth variation–what harpsichordist Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl’ –was played with reverence, the music rich with chromatic shading.

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations possess the emotional range and dramatic power of the composer’s piano sonatas. But like Goldberg, the music captures the spontaneity of improvisation. Based on a whirling waltz theme by Anton Diabelli, Beethoven’s thirty-three variations run the gamut from a pompous march to charming arias, and solemn, funereal passages to virtuosic showers of arpeggios that coalesce in textures of almost symphonic grandeur.

Here too, Schiff proved to be master of his environment. He captured the music’s full range of light and shade, shifting quickly between loud and soft dynamics. His tone thundered in the furious cascades of scales and dissolved to ghostly whispers immediately afterward. The lines of the fugal thirty-second variation resonated with authority; the melodic swirls of the third variation sang beautifully.

Other than the intermission, the only interruption came at the encore, when coughs from the audience forced Schiff to stop midway through the Arietta’s opening theme. After chastising the offenders, he began again and proceeded with a sparkling and memorable reading of the movement.

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will make his Celebrity Series debut in music by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Medtner, Mompou, Ravel, and Gounod 8 p.m. Tuesday at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org  

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One Response to “Schiff shows supreme artistry in variations of Bach and Beethoven”

  1. Posted Nov 03, 2013 at 1:32 pm by Peter Haydu

    The reviewer was right: András Schiff’s performance at Jordan Hall was quite beautiful, and showed an impressive mastery of technique and performance.

    However, the reference to the interruption of the encore suggested that Mr. Schiff was entirely justified in his response to coughs from the audience — which he was not. A single audience member coughed rather loudly two or three times, presumably without intending to be disruptive, and probably at the cost of considerable embarrasment to him/herself. Mr. Schiff responded by stopping his performance and singling this person out for being disruptive, saying that rather than interrupt the performance he or she should appreciate the encore as a Gift.

    The encore — and, indeed, the entire evening — was a Gift to Mr. Schiff’s audience, just as Mr. Schiff was given the Gift of his talent. But to see this display of temperament by Mr. Schiff to an audience member who meant no harm and was likely a fan was an ugly note in an otherwise lovely evening.

    The reviewer seemed to place the entire blame for this incident on the unlucky audience member, rather than to suggest that Mr. Schiff’s behavior was in any way inappropriate.