A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

András Schiff at Disney Hall / Photo courtesy of the LA Phil

The Colburn Celebrity Series opened the 2013-14 season on Oct. 9 with Hungarian pianist András Schiff performing his Grammy Award-winning Bach English Suites at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Schiff was brilliant. His technique was supernatural, and his artistry was heavenly. The experience was unforgettable. His phrasing had a vocalic prosody, and the elegance and beauty of his tone were uncanny. His piano was an extension of his body, his intellect, his being.

Bach’s almost-geometric contrapuntal patterns elicit the cognitive intrigue we all know and love, for centuries now, but Schiff has managed to add a genuine limbic allure — a unique emotional connotation. He brought these components together in a perfect balance for a thrilling modern Bach experience.

An oval spot of white light engulfed the piano in the hall that was mostly darkened, save a few dim highlights on the organ and a drab blue tint to the stage. Schiff walked deliberately across the stage to the piano, and after seating himself he hesitated for a considerable length of time. The audience maintained an almost-reverent stillness until the familiar first prelude began.

His feet remained planted firmly on the floor as if to ground him. He did not use the pedal, which made his seductive legato passages all the more impressive. His upper body was stiff throughout the early segments of the concert, but he would occasionally rise from his seat and move his body as his energy increased throughout the six suites.

Bach’s irrepressible cleverness did not escape Schiff as he breathed a personality into this sonic geometry. His preludes bounded freely along, belying the absolute synchrony of his motion throughout the long, flowing contrapuntal lines. There was an improvisatory feeling injected through the ornaments, where he gently offset the rhythms, especially at the cadences. His virtuosity and sensitivity to timing almost pushed his phrasing into odd-meters with his occasional playfulness.

He played without breaks and delayed only briefly between the suites in an incredible demonstration of both memory and stamina. His artistic vision tied the suites together into a cohesive musical statement.

The First Suite started lightly, it came across somewhat euthymic, not particularly energetic, although it succeeded on its quality of anticipation. Schiff immediately found the natural flow of the prelude, and used it to continually tug at our attentions; the bumps and turns of his bourrée compelled us curiously onward.

He stepped up the energy level for the Second Suite with endless ribbons of uniform staccato points flowing into a stream of delightful affect. The Third Suite ratcheted the tension up a few more notches. The brassy motives of the Fourth Suite and its wind-in-your-face gigue were delightful as was its soulful sarabande.

The Fifth Suite opened the second half of the performance. A different attitude was evident, not just in the composition, but in Schiff’s approach.

The D minor Sixth Suite was the energetic high point of the night. His dreamy allemande meandered before the courante found direction. Then a deceptively gentle sarabande gave way to an insistent energy that ran like a current through the sound. The tempo was quick and urgent.  He clenched his fist with his left hand at one point; on another occasion he held onto the rail of his bench. Schiff’s affective connection ignited the hall with a pure exhilaration.

The encore was a blazing version of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor. His hands seemed to undulate, and the speed and synchrony of the individual digits were unfathomable.

Bravo! Bach with humanity.

~Theodore Bell, Culture Spot LA

Schiff continues his Bach Keyboard Cycle on Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m. For details, visit www.laphil.com.