Andras Schiff performed the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by J.S. Bach, and Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120, by Beethoven, at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, October 13, 2013. Being at this performance was an enriching, exciting, mind opening experience. I would liken it to seeing Chartres Cathedral for the first time, trying to absorb its many parts as well as the overall impression of grandeur, its role in its community, its ability to inspire thoughts enlarging this world. This Livelyblog post is not a review in the sense of a critique. How could it be? First, the great pianist. He does not wave his arms around or fling them in the air and jump to let us know when he has finished. Mr. Schiff walks onstage, bows briefly, sits, and plays. When he has finished playing the lengthy, immensely challenging music, he does something wonderful. He allows his hands to remain on the keys until the smallest perceptible sound has disappeared and then lowers his hands to his lap. It is emblematic of his devotion to the music. The drama is more profound for his control. For this performance, the Hedgehogs were seated up high and able to look down directly upon Mr. Schiff’s hands as he played. This allowed a view of the patterns made by the music embodied by his hands. It was fascinating to see the geometry and design within the music. Some of the rhythm can be seen in the moving hands, but what struck one most was the design. It opened thoughts of the elegance of mathematical equations and the patterns in the universe such as one sees in a nautilus shell or the double helix of DNA. The program book offered Mr. Schiff’s “guided tour” through this work. He comments on the frequent hand crossing in Variations 5 and 8. In Var. 8, the physical act of playing the music adds to the impression that there are four or more voices when in fact there are 2. He advises that despite the charm of the melody, the listener must follow the bass line. He refers to the possibility of admiring a great cathedral without thinking of its foundation. In his notes, Mr. Schiff is aware that this approach to the music will raise the hackles of other musicians. Indeed, during the interval between Bach and Beethoven, one easily had the opportunity to hear a famous Bay Area musician criticize this focus on the bass to the detriment of the soprano voice. Well, a cat may look at a king. The Goldberg Variations opens with the beautiful Aria, a melody with many decorations. The bass line will be like the bread crumb path left by Hansel and Gretel. From then on, there are seemingly endless variations, each one completely different in its form, rhythm, and mood. Originally written for a harpsichord with two keyboards, the possibilities are stunningly complex and achieved by Bach in an expansion of human spirit. Mr. Schiff occasionally would look into the audience with a gentle smile as though acknowledging something funny in the music, or something coming that would turn the development of the whole piece. He did this as what he calls the “colossal build up” began in Variation 28 with the trills “like a concert of birds.” The expansive celebration comes in Variation 30. It has humor and a great heart. After the big sound of Variation 30, the Aria returns. It sounded different; it is the listener who has changed. Bach has taken the listener through so much and somehow, with no specific story to tell, one knows a peaceful, happy ending. There are structural, musical connections between the works by Bach and Beethoven. While Bach was almost unknown in Vienna in Beethoven’s time, Beethoven’s friend, Baron Gottfried von Swieten had a library of Bach’s manuscripts which Beethoven studied. Bach seldom used the variation format for his work; Beethoven worked in it often. In the Diabelli Variations one may join in an exploration of Beethoven’s inventions, fresh springs of structure, rhythm, earthy and celestial revels and revelations. One might search in geology and geography to find comparisons to what Beethoven lets us hear. There are dark caverns with glowing crystals, vast canyons with depths delineated for the eye only by modulations of color, placid oceanic expansions belying a terrific force about to be released. There is the rough dance of cheerful country-folk whose humor will be replaced by the sophistication of a Baroque court dance or the gravity of the piano’s own personality as an instrument. The enormous work challenges pianist and audience to experience the complexity possible in human creation as well as the roller coaster ride of human emotion. It ends with a surprise. The waltz from which the variations grew is transformed. After thirty-two variations, the thirty-third rises up. It is gentle and complete. Simplicity and purity are in the C major chord with which it ends. It needs no elaboration or emphasis. It is the answer the artist won by traveling through many worlds. Listening to Andras Schiff playing these works offers an opportunity to connect to the grandest excursions into human being that may be found. When he is playing near you, go.Photo of Andras Schiff at top of post by Birgitta Kowsky.
Andras 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.