October 5: The Keyboard Concerti
October 15: Suites and Cantatas
October 22: St Matthew Passion
October 26: Goldberg Variations
Over the last two decades, András Schiff has earned a reputation as the foremost Bach pianist of his generation. In a period which has witnessed the rise of the Early Music Movement, Schiff appeared as a staunch advocate of the traditional approach to Bach. While making token pronouncements in support of “peaceful co-existence” between “authenticists” and performers on “’modern’ instruments”, he nonetheless argued that “I have yet to hear a performance on original instruments that has evoked similar feelings or emotions” as his heroes – performers like Pablo Casals, Edwin Fischer and Willem Mengleberg. His playing style, likewise, was unabashedly pianistic, making use of a range of colours and dynamics that were not available on Bach’s own keyboard instruments. His only historical model was the clavichord, with its possibilities of subtle dynamic shaping, but of course he did not fail to take advantage of the piano’s much greater power and wider range.
He particularly laments the effect that the Early Music Movement has had on modern orchestras. In the introduction to his series of Bach concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, he writes that modern orchestras “very rarely – if ever – play Bach” because “they are afraid to be rebuked by some critics and attacked by the ‘expert’ purists”. His performance of the St. Matthew Passion was dedicated to the memory of Otto Klemperer, whose Bach recordings with the Philharmonia in the 1950s and 1960s made a profound impression on the young Schiff.
All this would lead one to expect unashamedly Romantic Bach performances. But in a talk presented in the Bach Study Day, the renowned musicologist, organist and harpsichordist John Butt (who also played the organ continuo in Schiff’s St. Matthew) implied that in fact these performances owed many stylistic features to the Early Music Movement. He praised Schiff the conductor for teaching the Philharmonia to create a specific Bach sound, which reflects many of the discoveries made by period instrument performers.
Schiff’s own lecture on that same day seemed to confirm this. In describing his approach to the St. Matthew Passion, he made copious references to the connections between the sacred and the secular in Bach’s music, and in particular to the myriad traces of dance patterns in the arias and choruses of the Passions. His demonstrations during this lecture featured a bold, energetic style which seemed miles away from his professed idol, Klemperer, but was highly reminiscent of the much-maligned “authenticists”. Throughout the series, the Philharmonia adopted sonorities and articulations not dissimilar to those of a period-instrument orchestra.
Great admirer as I am of period instrument Bach (at least in some of its manifestations), I was not always sure that this was an advantage. In the keyboard concerti, for instance, Schiff’s own playing was, at times, uncharacteristically percussive, his phrasing more regular and four-square than usual. These were, to be sure, impressively musical performances. Schiff’s love for these works, and his intense familiarity with them, was never in doubt; nor was his close rapport with the orchestra. There were many persuasively original turns of phrases and dynamic shadings. But these were generally confined to individual sections; I could not sense the architecture of entire movements, let alone entire concertos.
All this is thrown into sharper relief when compared to Murray Perahia’s performances in the same hall, six month earlier, with the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Field. In Perahia’s readings, each movement consisted of a series of dovetailing waves, each with its own rounded contour of timbres, articulation and phrasing, yet merging into a single continuum. This was especially pronounced in movements like the Siciliana of the E major concerto, where Perahia’s single extended phrase ended only with the much-delayed arrival of a secure tonic. Set besides Perahia’s drama and poetry, Schiff’s interpretations – for all their undoubted virtues – sounded almost mundane and prosaic. I should add, though, that Schiff surpassed himself in the D minor concerto which concluded his first concert, bringing in a sense of unity and drama which was lacking earlier.
Having missed his performance of the Brandenburg Concerti, my next concert in the series consisted of two orchestral suites (nos. 1 and 3) and two solo cantatas – Vergnügte Ruh, BWV 170, sung by the alto Monica Groop, and Ich Habe genug, BWV 82, sung by the bass Thomas Quasthoff; both singers also featured in the St. Matthew.
On the whole, this concert was more impressive. I was slightly disappointed by cantata BWV 82: Schiff’s conducting seemed peaceful, almost placid, failing to accommodate the sense of subtle pain in Quasthoff’s singing. The alto cantata (which was performed by a chamber ensemble, with Schiff himself playing the organ) was altogether more successful: Groop proved as expressive and insightful a singer as Quasthoff, and received more sensitive and poetic support from her accompanists.
The orchestral suites often featured an ideal combination of thoughtful detail and spontaneous flow, and many sections – especially the majestic openings of the overtures – combined weight and transparency. There was greater flexibility (and, in some cases, beautiful delicacy) than in the keyboard concerti.
Undoubtedly the most ambitious project in this series was the performance of the St. Matthew Passion. This was treated as a special event indeed. The audience was asked to respect “the devotional nature” of the work by avoiding applause (in the end, they couldn’t help themselves – but there was a long pause between the end of the concert and the start of the applause, something which I’d welcome in all concerts). We were also told to keep quiet since the concert was being recorded.
If this recording is intended for commercial release, I can’t help feeling that this is a mistake. This performance did not contribute many new insights into the work, and cannot compete with the greatest performances on record (including the recent recordings by Herreweghe and Suzuki). That said, as a concert performance, it was almost constantly enjoyable, and in many cases profoundly moving.
This was due, in no small part, to the soloists. With one exception (the tremulous, somewhat sentimental Jesus of Robert Holl), they were an excellent group. Peter Schreier, perhaps the world’s most famous evangelist, was in superb form. Amazingly, after 30 years of singing this part (with a varied roster of conductors – including himself), he lost none of his freshness: you could tell that he knew the part inside-out, but there was not a trace of routine. His upper register was slightly fragile, but he even managed to turn that to interpretative advantage.
I have already noted the expressive profundity and fine voices of Monica Groop and Thomas Quasthoff. The young tenor Lothar Odinius was perhaps less impressive vocally, but he proved himself to be a very sensitive and attentive musician. The soprano Juliane Banse sang almost constantly in a rather small voice, but this was obviously intentional – conveying a sense of innocence, fragility and (especially in “Aus Liebe”) contained yet heart-rending emotion. I suspect that she has much greater vocal reserves, and that she made a point of not exploiting them in this context. Overall, this was among the most impressive gathering of soloists for a performance of the St. Matthew Passion – live or on record.
It’s a pity they were not matched by an equally superlative choir. London Voices produced a beautiful in their piano passages, but the moment they arose above mezzo-forte, they displayed an ungainly combination of tremolando and harshness. This sounded especially inappropriate against the orchestral playing, with its transparency and flexibility.
Schiff’s interpretation was, for the most part, convincing. Some parts were disappointing: the opening chorus was somewhat harsh; “Blute nur” was incredibly fast, violent and lacking in subtlety (despite the heroically musical efforts of Banse, who made the best of an impossible tempo and an insensitive accompaniment). Elsewhere, Schiff was unobtrusively musical, and on some occasions (an intimate “Erbarme dich”, highly original phrasing in “Können Tränen”, sensitive shaping in “Ach Golgaltha” and “Mache dich”) competing with the best. On the whole, this was a fine – but not great – performance.
The final concert – Schiff’s performance of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) – was the highlight of this series, perhaps the only truly “great” performance. Freed from the requirements of conducting, Schiff displayed greater freedom and flexibility. Schiff is fully aware that the Goldberg Variations were written with harpsichord, rather than a clavichord, in mind. Nonetheless, he had no qualms about using the piano for effects which could not possibly be achieved on the harpsichord: frequent crescendi and diminuendi, and beautifully soft, resonant sonorities.  His evocation of delicate, celesta-like bells in variation 28 – combined with a constant ebb and flow of dynamics – was miles away from the harpsichord sound, and undercut the brilliance and virtuosity of this variation. The effect was, nonetheless, magically convincing.
What I enjoyed most about this performance was the sense of architecture. If in the keyboard concerti Schiff seemed unable to imbue individual movements with a unity and continuity, here he succeeded in revealing this very aspect across the entire 70-minute length of the Aria and 30 Variations (replete with all repeats – even in the Aria da-Capo). There was a unity of pulse – not as strict as in Gould’s 1981 recording, but still clearly felt – and the sense that the character of each variation was carefully considered in view of its location in the sequence. This even meant that sometimes a variation would acquire its characteristic expression gradually. Variations 10 and 26, for instance, both started quietly and reflectively, slowly gathering strength and sharpness, culminating in an emphatic conclusion. This would have made little sense in isolation, but was highly effective in context – as these variations arose out of the depths of their quieter predecessors (especially in the case of variation 26, which follows on the remarkable “Chopinisque” 25). 
The sense of continuity was also apparent within each variation. For the most part, Schiff excelled in revealing Bach’s contrapuntal textures (this at least was my impression; I must admit that it was not shared by some of the listeners I talked to later), and more importantly, made use of them to gently push the music along. His phrases constantly dovetailed; he usually emphasised whichever voice happened to be in motion at the time, at the expense of voices that were cadencing, thus guaranteeing a constant flow.
On the whole, then, this was a beautiful performance, notable both for its seductive sonorities and for the clear-headed intellect and sense of architecture it displayed.
On the evidence of this series, Schiff the conductor is not yet the equal of Schiff the pianist, and the latter seems to be at his best without the former’s intervention.  However, Schiff’s achievement in bringing out a convincingly Bachian sound from the Philharmonia was highly impressive. I hope therefore that this collaboration continues. The marginal weaknesses in this highly enjoyable series might have to do with Schiff’s relative lack of experience as a conductor, and with the orchestra’s lack of recent Bach experiences. One therefore has every reason to hope that future Bach collaborations between Schiff and the Philharmonia will be even more successful.
© Uri Golomb, 2000