Andras Schiff/Bach

AndrasSchiffAndras Schiff performed J.S. Bach’s Six Partitas for Keyboard, BWV 825-830, Sunday, October 6, at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. “Awesome” was the comment of the Hedgehog’s co-editor, a man seldom given to exaggeration or the use of that word to describe a sandwich. It was an awe-inspiring event. For readers who were not there, I will try to describe this once in a lifetime experience and also urge upon you attendance at one of Mr. Schiff’s performances or, if that is not possible, a careful listen to one of his recordings. I had the privilege to hear Mr. Schiff on his earlier visit to San Francisco in which he both played and talked about Bach. While I wanted to write about what he said and did, I put it off; perhaps I imagined that some how my ordinary brain would wake up to a set of words to match the music. That did not happen. The Partitas are multi-movement suites. Each is different; one can not anticipate, “oh, there’s the Sarabande, here comes the Gigue.” Bach uses those dance forms ( yes, conservatory students, dance forms ) in wholly new ways of his limitless invention. He adds movements called “galanterien,” optional movements, that come from all sorts of forms: arias, capriccios, fantasias. Within each movement, there is more invention within and all around it. The rhythmic variety is dazzling. Both the right and left hand establish different, complex rhythms and then take off onto new ones. The result is beauty. It is beautiful in the way a sunset or a forest might be beautiful on one glance but more beautiful, a mysterious and challenging beauty, if one could look knowing that one was not seeing a static picture but myriad entities made up of countless atoms all in motion. It was a performance that required focus on the part of the audience. The focus and endurance of the artist is at a level combining the focus of a world champion chess player with a world champion Iron Man. Being a person who does neither chess nor Iron Man contests, I do not claim to know from the inside what that is like. I am reaching to understand. The performance of these technically wizardly compositions lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes. I mention that lest someone think a solo performance would necessarily be brief. The first half included Partita No. 5, No. 3, No. 1, and No. 2. Each one contains delights. No. 5 has a Corrente movement which truly runs quick notes dashing through bright, happy harmonies. Its seventh and final movement is a thrilling Gigue which demands beyond virtuoso playing. The rhythmic inventions in No. 3 continually alter the listener’s perceptions and occasionally reveal just a glimpse of a dance.  The stunning final movement, Capriccio, of No. 2 leaves the listener breathless. Partita No. 4 opened the first half offering part of an answer as to the artist’s choice of the order of the works. This Partita’s lyricism made it sound almost as though it were foretelling the musical future evolving into Romanticism. Bach’s genius transcends any classification by era or style, just as pure mathematics, another hobby this writer has yet to take up, knows no limits by year or geography. The Hedgehog co-editor told me after the concert that the Partitas are works that every serious piano student knows, or knows about, or has approached, although, he said, they are so very (extremely) difficult to play. Looking back, I realize how lucky I am that I was not familiar with these magnificent works. That is because when the final movement, a Gigue that took even the previous Gigues to another level of pure music and artistry, came suddenly to its end, the sudden gesture of both my hands to my mouth in amazement was entirely involuntary. Yes, 2 hours and 45 minutes without the many curtain calls and Mr. Schiff’s generous encore. I would have gladly stayed to hear it all again. Andras Schiff performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Sunday, Oct. 13, 7 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. JSBach