A sense of ritual pervaded András Schiff’s Bach performance last night. The audience, clearly expecting something transcendent, was already hushed and attentive long before he took the stage. When he did, he cut a slight and unprepossessing figure, and his stage manner was straightforward and unflamboyant: a brief bow and then straight to the bench. Yet he seemed to have an aura about him, of authority and experience, lending weight and significance to his every move, like the celebrant in some secular observance. Then he performed the First Book of the 48, in its entirety and from memory, pausing only briefly between each work and never breaking his concentration in the entire two-hour span. And the audience hung on his every note, as focussed on the music as he was, and, remarkably, almost as able to maintain the intense concentration required.
But despite the sense of reverence, from the audience for the pianist, and from the pianist for the work, there was nothing dull or dour about this performance. Schiff brought light and colour to every one of the short movements. His touch at the keyboard is lively and nimble, his small hands scurrying around the keys with lightness and grace. His articulation, while always varied, is based on a clean but flowing portato; the individual notes and lines presented with rare clarity, but never at the expense of the music’s flow or of the overall form. He studiously avoids the sustain pedal, allowing the articulation of his fingerwork all the more clarity and focus. And the sound he draws from the Wigmore Hall’s piano is clear yet warm, attractive but never so comfortable as to detract from the detail of the music.
Typically, Schiff will begin a movement with a straightforward statement of the opening idea, then very gradually allow it to open out into the passagework and counterpoint that is the main substance of most of these works. He often emphasises the main theme in the more involved contrapuntal textures with a combination of louder dynamics and more pointed articulation. Under lesser hands, this could sound excessively literal or even patronising to the audience, but Schiff’s aim is always for clarity and interpretive focus, and the hierarchies he presents in the voice-leading serve only to extend the distinctive presentation of the melodic lines in the simpler passages.
Tempos are often brisk, but never to the point of trivialising the music. Schiff often gives the feeling that five, or even ten, minutes of music form a single, arching paragraph, gradually becoming more emotionally involved as it goes on. But then he’ll snap the audience out of it with a brisk and bracing reading of the more energetic movements, the E-Minor Fugue for example, or the G-Minor Fugue – given a surprisingly lively reading here.
Presenting the whole book as a single, unbroken musical statement risks projecting ideas onto the music that it won’t support. But in fact, Bach’s music proves remarkably adept to this treatment, even if it is a long way he from what he himself envisaged. Stylistic variety between the successive preludes avoids monotony, while the greater similarities between the fugues maintains a consistency too. That old pop producer’s trick of keeping a song interesting by raising its last chorus by a semitone happens throughout the 48, with the tonal centre rising a semitone every other piece to ensure a perpetual sense of freshness.
But András Schiff deserves as much credit for that as Bach. In fact, his conception requires him to play down the contrast between successive works, but the result is more subtle interactions between them, as the memory of the contrapuntal intrigues of a previous movement are continually roused by those of the one you’re listening to. Schiff also works within a fairly narrow range of dynamics and articulations, preferring contrast through minute gradations rather than overt extremes. It is an approach that requires listeners to focus in on every detail he presents, and to maintain their concentration for very long periods. Fortunately, that is exactly the reception his performance got from the Wigmore Hall audience, which augers well for his subsequent appearances in this series, which could yet tax and challenge listeners even more, but also offer similarly satisfying rewards.