Air of Authenticity
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations
Andras Schiff (piano)
“…it is the performer’s duty to present his tempo so convincingly that it will sound inevitable to the listener.”
Although the story is probably apocryphal, Bach’s first biographer, Johann Forkel, reports that the composer fulfilled a commission from the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court for some soothing music that his talented servant, Johann Goldberg, could play in the wee hours to cure him of his insomnia. Bach clothed the soporific in what was for him the odious variation form and received a handsome remuneration in return. History does not record what the effects were on Count Kaiserling, but I doubt that he would have been lulled to slumbers by the masterful playing of Andras Schiff. It is a musicological irony that Bach himself would probably not have been a passionate combatant in the debate surrounding his keyboard music, as his regard for its timelessness was healthily skeptical. However, everyone these days has an opinion as to whether these pieces belong to the world of the harpsichord or the modern piano. Artists like Maestro Schiff seriously question the philosophical dominance of historical accuracy, offering as their argument a deeper sense of emotional authenticity. Just two weeks ago, Murray Perahia dazzled with his contemporary reading of the Goldbergs at Avery Fisher; last evening it was Schiff’s turn to peruse this problematic work.
This is my fourth Schiff recital this 250th death year, so I was not surprised to hear him perform the original air in a highly idiosyncratic manner, more like a Romantic poem than a simple ornamented tune. Nor was I shocked by his ravenous tempi which attacked the variations with passionate hunger and propelled all of us headlong into a heart-pounding windsprint. What struck me this evening, in addition to his pronounced athleticism, was his incredible memory. After all, this music, like last week’s WTC, is eerily similar from one stanza to the next, and individual phrases can vary by only a note or two. To keep all of this straight without the aid of a score is phenomenal. Of course, at Mr. Schiff’s pace, there would be few page-turners who could keep up with him.
The briskness of the overall reading allowed this thoughtful practitioner to linger lovingly over certain of the slower variations, their poetic breadth (and depth) highlighted by contrast. Schiff’s architectural scheme was very different from that of the “48”. For the preludes and fugues he created a gossamer world where flights of spiritual fancy led many listeners into their own space (here there was the potential for discreet napping). For the variants, however, he layered the moods and pacings of each so skillfully that everyone was eager to hear what the next chapter in the story would be and there was little room for drifting. By now, it goes without saying that his technique was flawless, each note struck bell-like and the pedals hardly touched at all. Taken as a totality, the four recitals which I attended over this past year (there were indeed six in all: three at Avery Fisher and three at Carnegie) stand out as the finest musical experience of this rich and full last year of the century.
The sold out house rewarded this amazing performer with a rousing and prolonged standing ovation. The hall was full enough that Carnegie management allowed for about 75 people to sit on the stage behind Mr. Schiff. All well and good, but having to stare at these people all evening only heightened my disgust at the erosion of concert dress in the New York of recent years. Seeing this exceptional artist in his white tie and tails having to wade through this crowd of slobs in their jeans and tee shirts, or outfits more suitable for the gymnasium that the concert hall, makes one question who here still is willing to show respect for the music. A cursory demographic survey suggests that it is not the tourists who desecrate these hallowed proceedings, but rather the indigenous population of this city which aspires to a bit of sophistication. In this short attention span universe, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect patrons to study their scores before attending a performance, but can’t they at least look like they care?
Frederick L. Kirshnit