‘Goldberg’ Perspectives: Bach In Knowing Hands On Piano, Harpsichord

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András Schiff played Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations,’ drawing on a lifetime of considering the magisterial work. (Yutaka Suzuki)

VANCOUVER — Keyboard fans enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime conjunction of performances by András Schiff and Jean Rondeau this fall, as the two very different performers tackled Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, on piano and harpsichord, respectively.

Schiff’s visit was originally planned as the keystone of the Vancouver Recital Society’s 40th anniversary celebrations, but was postponed due to the pandemic. He was ultimately able to travel to Vancouver to play a pair of recitals; the first was an extended program of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in the 670-seat Vancouver Playhouse on Oct. 18.

The second, an all-Bach program two days later, proved something of a challenge, as it was difficult to match the date with an appropriate venue. Schiff’s second recital took place in the large Orpheum Theatre, a 1920s movie palace turned symphony hall. Last season, as concert life slowly resumed, the Recital Society made the happy discovery that socially distanced seating on the lower floor of the big theater provided a measure of comfort for skittish audiences. While a Bach program in the Orpheum was hardly a perfect match of music and venue, an enthusiastic audience wasn’t about to complain about a second chance to hear from Schiff.

His Oct. 20 program turned out to be a mammoth proposition, starting with the F minor Sinfonia, BWV 795, then the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, and the Overture in the French style, BWV 831. While this was not a lecture-recital per se, Schiff offered extensive commentary from the platform, broad enough for neophytes yet filled with telling views and strategies about the repertoire, its context, and his personal attitudes to performance.

Acknowledging that the Recital Society’s excellent Hamburg Steinway piano was in no way the instrument for which Bach wrote, Schiff’s performance was true in every other aspect to the spirit of the Baroque. He made a particular point of taking all the repeats of the binary-form dances in the Overture. Listeners quickly realized this was not pedantry; rather, we were treated to a wealth of subtle reconsiderations of material just heard.

András Schiff following his mammoth all-Bach program at the Orpheum Theatre.

After the interval, Schiff spoke at some length before beginning the Goldberg Variations, illustrating his talk with short examples from the keyboard. There followed a reading of extraordinary concentration and commitment, the fruits of a lifetime of considering Bach’s magisterial composition. Schiff’s playing was both elegant and patrician. There was a chiseled perfection to every note, sparing yet considered use of dynamics, and occasional highlighting of inner lines. The trajectory of the extended work remained clear and dramatic, achieved by the faithful rendition of Bach’s music, not by keyboard theatrics and tricks.

As in the Overture, Schiff’s approach to the repeats was an object lesson in how a slight change in perspective reveals a wealth of previously unnoticed detail. His wistful throwaway comments about the diminished joys of contemporary travel and the decline of music education gave a valedictory air to his performance. Whatever the motivation, the appreciative audience was left with a compelling sense of “This is who I am; this is what I believe; this is what matters” from one of the greatest keyboard masters of our age.

On Nov. 6, young French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau offered only the Goldberg Variations on his program. Normally the Recital Society avoids duplicating works in any single season, but a second rendition of the Bach masterpiece from this most brilliant of contemporary harpsichordists was an exception to prove the rule.

Though Rondeau played a private recital here a few seasons ago, his first public appearance took place in a new venue for the Recital Society: the beautifully renovated Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue. With a seating capacity of just 325, the sanctuary is an elegantly austere space, with indirect natural lighting and a comfortable semi-circular configuration of seats.

While the Society’s Steinway is considered one of the best in the city, the task of finding Rondeau just the right harpsichord took extra effort. Ultimately, he was given a choice of three by Vancouver-based instrument maker Craig Tomlinson. A large, privately owned harpsichord was selected, and proved well scaled for the room.

Recital Society founder Leila Getz offered a short introduction before the concert, reminding the audience that an uninterrupted hour and 40 minutes of music was in store and that the intimate sound of the harpsichord would require an extra measure of concentration. “Don’t breathe!” was her tongue-in-cheek admonition to the full house.

Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau gave his recital of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ at the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue.

Rondeau began, as is his custom, with a short improvisation, a strategy that established the parameters of the harpsichord’s sound within the room and set up the tonality of the variations. With that over, he began to play in a measured tempo and what might at first have seemed a deliberate, restrained take on the famous theme. This proved to be a ruse; even on the very first repeat of the opening half of the theme, Rondeau added a flurry of intricate yet entirely appropriate ornamentation.

His singular vision of the work was quickly established. There would be a rich lexicon of ornamentation on repeats and an equally rich vocabulary of harpsichord-specific articulation, all in the service of making every section of the extended piece distinct and memorable. 

Rondeau’s thrilling, flexible approach to rhythm was perhaps the defining element in his method. While respecting 18th-century performing conventions, he explored vital dance rhythms in some variations, the sensation of improvisatory freedom in others.

Vancouver underwent unusual weather on the day of Rondeau’s performance, and some fairly drastic changes in temperature and humidity had their effect on the harpsichord. At mid-point in the Variations Rondeau casually got to work with his tuning wrench. With his instrument back in top form, he resumed with a particularly jaunty take on the French Overture that launches the second half of the work.

Serendipitously, as the piece darkened with minor-key segments, the fading light of the early November day seemed to be synchronized with the growing intensity of the music. By the concluding Quodlibet, the sanctuary was in shadow, leaving only the soloist and the instrument highlighted. With the return of the initial Aria, time had lost its meaning, and the audience sat for an extended moment in a trance-like silence, as if unable to grasp that the extraordinary music had come to an end.