Tag Archives: Goldberg Variations

Andras Schiff/Bach & Beethoven

Andras Schiff_PianistAndras 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. ┬áSimplicity 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.DownloadedFileJSBachPhoto of Andras Schiff at top of post by Birgitta Kowsky.