Champion Spirit Stands Up to Epic Bach, Beethoven

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Pianist Andras Schiff explored monuments of Bach and Beethoven at New York's 92nd St. Y. (Nadia F. Romanini)
Pianist Andras Schiff explored monuments of Bach and Beethoven at New York’s 92nd St. Y. (Nadia F. Romanini)
By Stuart Isacoff

NEW YORK – The line to get into Kaufmann Concert Hall to see pianist András Schiff on Oct. 29 wound through the drab halls of the 92nd Street Y and threaded its way into the far reaches of the organization’s adjacent housing wing. It was a remarkable turnout, especially on a weeknight, for an educational program about two esoteric musical works: Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

The audience was mostly gray and palpably enthusiastic. It was general seating, and when I walked over to the house manager to inquire about my seat, a short, elderly woman grabbed my arm and pushed me backward, lest I get ahead of her. (At the end of Schiff’s three-hour marathon of a presentation, I tried in vain to spot her, curious about how she had held up, and wanting to reduce any chance of being mugged when I left the hall.)

Even as many of us sagged over the course of the night, Schiff’s stamina and artfulness were unflagging: he was as fresh at 11:20 as he had been at 8:20 p.m. He discussed and played both works from memory, effortlessly. The next evening he was to perform the Bach Partitas at Carnegie Hall. His pianism had all the best Schiff trademarks: impeccable control, clarity, tonal beauty, attention to detail, and emotional depth. He has a kind of hip insouciance as a lecturer, peppering his narrative with flashes of humor. It went over well.

Schiff and I did a videotaped 90-minute conversation at Lincoln Center last year about the art of playing Bach (fourteen minutes of it appear on his website, in the first file on this page), during which I asked him how his interpretations had changed from the earliest recordings to the present ones. He demurred, turning the question around: what changes, he wondered, did I hear? It seemed to me that his earlier approach had just a touch of sentimentality – a layering-on of emotion that can ring false – and he admitted it was a quality he had worked to shed.

Andras Schiff performs Nov. 5 at Carnegie Hall. (Nadia F. Romanini)
Andras Schiff performs Nov. 5 at Carnegie Hall. (Nadia F. Romanini)

There is no longer a trace of it. Rather, in Schiff’s hands, emotion arises naturally through recognition of the music’s innate character. This was clear in his demonstration of the Diabelli theme that opens the Beethoven variation set. This waltz has a reputation as being silly and artless, a mere “cobbler’s patch” of a piece. (In his talk, Schiff repeatedly referred to a specific section of the waltz – the sequence near the end – as the “cobbler’s patch”; it was the first time I’ve heard the term applied in that way.) The pianist showed that when played as a light Viennese waltz, the music is robbed of its real substance: “I like to think of how Beethoven would have played it like a madman,” he stated. And he launched into the waltz in that spirit, creating a crazy, demonic rendering that set things up for Beethoven’s bipolar alternations that follow – what critics in the composer’s time labeled the “doves” and “crocodiles” in his music.

Character was a driving force in his Bach explication as well, as Schiff outlined the form of the Goldbergs, based on groups of three: toccata-like pieces with virtuoso hand-crossings (based, he explained, on Scarlatti); gentle, lyrical pieces; and canons (which move progressively from a canon at the unison on up to a canon at the ninth). He highlighted moments of particular interest: dance-like variations meant to sound like “play,” not struggle; the endless Italian-style melody of Variation 13, “The White Pearl,” something, he remarked, that “Wagner would have dreamed to achieve”; and the grief-stricken Variation 25, called “The Black Pearl” by Wanda Landowska – “so dissonant and modern it must have been a shock, like stabbing a knife into your own heart.”

He admonished parents of young students who want take on this work that “you have to arrive at Everest after climbing smaller hills,” and offered a plea for patience at the very end. There is always an audience member, he explained, who applauds to demonstrate that he knows the piece is over. He asked that instead we all sit in silence after the last note sounded. And even this group of aggressive New Yorkers complied.

Schiff’s complete performance of the Goldberg Variations and the Diabelli Variations takes place at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 5. It should not be missed.

Stuart Isacoff’s latest publication is A Natural History of the Piano (Knopf/Vintage). He is at work on a book about the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and Van Cliburn.