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Nuns Fret Not

New York
Alice Tully Hall
02/02/2000 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Six English Suites
Andras Schiff (piano)

As befits his life of order, Johann Sebastian Bach had the mathematical good grace to die in exactly the year 1750, thus establishing a concrete line of demarcation between the Baroque and Classical periods. A pure number like 2000 therefore is the 250th death anniversary year and we can expect a glorious outpouring of Bach performances from the juvenalia to the sublime. It all got under weigh in New York last evening with a tremendously spiritual reading of one of the most masterful of all the Leipziger's genres, the dance suite for keyboard. Andras Schiff will be devoting much of his time to this music this season and is playing three concerts in two weeks here. Old Bach could never have a more fervent acolyte.

Two Schiff stories come to mind. First, some years ago at an all Bartok concert in Chicago with his fellow Hungarian Georg Solti, the pianist was encouraged to play an encore after a rousing rendition of the concerto written for Ditta Pastorzy. He chose the first of the Two Part Inventions as a shining example of pure sound and its awesome yet simple power. Second, when I heard Schiff play the Schumann Novelletten last season, he broke them up into two groups, presenting one during the first part of his recital and the second later on after other music. He instinctively knew that this type of programming would make the music not only more refreshing but also take on the guise of a familiar memory, a musical deja vu. He spends a lot of energy planning his programs as well as thinking about how to present them.

For the English Suites, Schiff attacked them like a hungry lion, acknowledging but only cursorily the applause between each set of dances. He practically ran back out to the keyboard each time and his sheer enthusiasm was infectious as was his notion that these six works are actually one giant piece, filled with variation and emotion but all generated from the smallest of thematic building blocks. When he started the third section I realized that he was achieving his goal, to make the audience yearn for the next chapter in the story as much as he obviously does.

Bach was the master of minimalism and purposefully entombed himself within the strictest boundaries as if to say "think of how glorious the universe really is if I can extract so much from just one auditory grain!" Schiff's steady nimbleness and profoundly striking memory were on display as he raced through sections more like a harpsichordist than a pianist, only occasionally slowing the tempo to bring out (ala Gould) the beauties of the hidden lyrical lines. Overall this performance was lustily athletic and, over time, began to produce in the rapt listeners a sense of being under the spell of a mighty Svengali, the music the undulating watch chain of the master hypnotist. Perhaps the best compliment that I can muster is that at the end I thought to myself that it was an extremely early night that had flown by so rapidly. It couldn't even be 9:30 and yet, when I emerged into the cold of Lincoln Center Plaza, it was in reality 10:45. I have always thought that the most spiritual experience in music is the old recording of Edwin Fischer playing the WTC and this highly skilled musician recreates that same sense of timelessness and inner peace on the live concert stage. An experience not to be missed. Hopefully I can wangle a seat for the French Suites on Saturday night.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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