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Doing the Math

New York
Alice Tully Hall
02/05/2000 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Six French Suites, French Overture in B Minor
Andras Schiff (piano)

If Johann Sebastian Bach could be magically resurrected 250 years after his death and be able to walk the streets of Leipzig today what would impress him the most would not be airplanes or computers but rather the very concept that his music was still being performed. Highly influenced by the laws of mathematics, Old Bach plied his formulas with the care of a researcher but did not think that the finished product was anything special, not even bothering to preserve much of his immense output and tossing off a brilliant cantata every Sunday for his boys to perform as part of their general duties at St. Thomas' Church (he was also in charge of bussing tables there). Of course, we in the 21st century revere this music much in the same way that Bach did his God, to whom he dedicated the algebraic purity of his compositions That most spiritual of composers, Anton Bruckner, never began a day of composition without first playing through several of Bach's keyboard works to cleanse and purify his ear in the same way that a gourmand intersperses his meals with sorbet. Andras Schiff has a highly developed sense of the permutations and combinations involved in the architecture of these magnificent pieces and displayed for the second time this week his utter mastery of their performance.

My hosts at Lincoln Center graciously allowed me to sit in the first row of the loge in order that I could more accurately observe this great artist's fingers on the keyboard. I was struck almost from the outset by the visual representation of the numerical logic of Bach and began to rhapsodize silently on its meditative beauty. I once read a book entitled "The World's Most Beautiful Mathematical Formulas" and watching Schiff I was transported to a synaesthetic universe where left and right brain functions were totally integrated and where art and science got along splendidly.

Schiff is an amazing performer. At the concert of English Suites on Wednesday night my friend asked me if he were a Bach specialist and was surprised to hear me talk of this Hungarian's abilities to play Schumann and Chopin, Brahms and Bartok. When hearing him play Bach it is natural to assume that he has devoted his whole life to the study of this great genre and yet it is only one of his many triumphs. What ultimately strikes one is the touch, so highly developed that the listener can clearly hear the difference between a mezzo forte and a mezzo piano, the fingers so pliable as to express emotions ranging from majesty to tomfoolery unmistakably translatable to every ear in the hall. The French Suites are very melodic and various in mood and tempo and Schiff led us on an unforgettable journey into the most beautifully revealed patterns of this elegant tapestry.

>From the technical standpoint it was a revelation to spend the evening watching those fingers. Obviously much thought and preparation has gone into these performances, for the logic of fingering itself seemed to mirror the essential thread of this complex (although popular sounding) music. When he finished the incredibly nimble reading of the famous Gigue which ends the fifth of these suites I heard an audible sigh. It took a moment to realize that it came from me. I had been holding my breath, so wrapped up was I in the dramatic choreography of these athletic digits.

Putting the focus on the keyboard music of the master is a great way to introduce this special 250th death year. I'm sure that there will be many worthy efforts to commemorate this event but I hardly think that any can surpass this series of concerts of Schiff for sheer intensity and impressive performance. It is always refreshing to look back into the treasure chest of this father of classical music. Arnold Schoenberg was once asked if composition students should study his music. He replied, "perhaps, but they would be better off to do what I did and learn from Bach."

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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