A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

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

In a string of three recitals earlier this month at Disney Hall, renowned Hungarian pianist András Schiff completed his epic two-year survey of J.S. Bach’s solo keyboard works.

The first recital on Oct. 9 consisted of Bach’s Six English Suites, and is reviewed separately here.  In the second and third recitals, on Oct. 16 and 20 respectively, Schiff showcased Bach at the height of his compositional prowess, playing his Six Partitas and his formidable Goldberg Variations.  He then concluded with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which was perhaps fitting as homage to Bach’s tremendous influence on all subsequent generations of composers.

And while both recitals lasted for almost three hours, Schiff exuded poise and  energy throughout, playing with his trademark lyricism and thoughtfulness.  Revitalized after the completion of his veritable Bach marathon, Schiff even brought a renewed vigor to his rendition of the Beethoven, engaging the audience with its brusque humor and its lyrical warmth.

Although Bach’s Six Partitas all follow a traditional Baroque dance suite layout — as with his earlier English Suites and French Suites — they show considerable freedom in organization and expression, looking less like rigid dance forms and more like canvasses for musical exploration.  In his Oct. 16 recital, Schiff performed the Six Partitas with an air of expressiveness and spontaneity.  He performed them out of order, alternating between the sunny and somewhat more relaxed major key Partitas and the darker minor key ones.

Opening the program was Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G major, which begins with a virtuosic Preamble and concludes with an uplifting Gigue.  Schiff ’s playing here was cerebral yet spontaneous, showcasing his ability to highlight intertwining melodic lines in the music while maintaining its improvisatory spirit.

After the melancholic Partita No. 3 in A minor and the pastoral Partita No. 1 in B-flat major — which left the audience spellbound with its fleeting cross-handed gigue — Schiff concluded the first half of the program with the dark and somewhat turbulent Partita No. 2 in C minor.  Its opening Sinfonia begins majestically with the dotted rhythms, but, in an improvisatory stoke, becomes reflective in the ambling middle section and then relentlessly animated as it reaches its conclusion.  Schiff masterfully conveyed this air of spontaneity throughout this movement, and his playing continued to brim with energy until the final movement.

The second half of the program started with Bach’s reflective Partita No. 4 in D major, and culminated in Partita No. 6 in E minor, the most complex and possibly most monumental of the entire set.  The closing Gigue that concluded this marathon three-hour performance brought the audience to such a long standing ovation that the understandably tired Schiff had no choice but to encore.  After saying a few words — which sounded like an assurance to the audience that the ensuing piece would be short — Schiff played Bach’s Two-part Invention in C major, a miniature that is familiar to beginning piano students but nonetheless brings to mind the inventiveness and spontaneity of the music heard that night.

As Schiff walked onto the Disney Hall stage on Oct. 20 to enter the final mile of his Bach marathon, there was an air of excitement and anticipation as he proceeded to tackle one of Bach’s most formidable and monumental additions to the keyboard repertory — his Goldberg Variations.  Having acquired legendary status in pop culture — thanks largely to eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” — the Goldberg Variations inspires a sort of spiritual awe and fervor in a way matched by few other works of art.

The beginning Aria is simple, but contains all the material required for the explosion of creativity that follows.  Schiff played the Aria in an elegant and unassuming manner, delicately adorning the theme with short trills and other embellishments upon its second repetition.

In the variations that followed, Schiff surveyed a wide range of contrasting musical ideas, leading the audience on a journey into the musical world of the Baroque.  In line with previous Bach performances, Schiff chose not to use the sustaining pedal, opting instead to connect musical phrases with finger legato.  His resultant playing was clear and penetrating, and, while being deeply lyrical and emotive, was never overpowering.

The clarity of Schiff’s playing shone in the rapid keyboard runs interspersed within some of these faster variations (e.g., Variation Nos. 5 and 20).  Though Schiff chose more moderate tempos for these technically demanding variations — unlike Glenn Gould’s first recording of this piece, for instance — he nonetheless dazzled the audience with the precision of his finger work and the clarity of his execution.

But though these variations were clearly dazzling, the more introspective variations were the ones that truly caused the audience to hold their breath.  The audience was captivated by the haunting simplicity and beauty of the lilting gigue in Variation No. 7, and the pensive minor key Variation No. 15.  Towards the end, Schiff plumbed emotional depths with the plaintive Variation No. 25, where the melodic line seemed to reach upwards, only to continually fall back in despair.

After reaching a climax with the energetic Variation Nos. 29 and 30, Schiff concluded the piece with a more subdued return to the beginning Aria.  After holding the final G major chord for what seemed like an eternity, Schiff, seemingly exhausted, rose up very slowly from the piano stool amid the thunderous applause, leaning against the piano to help himself up.  The marathon was over.

A renewed vigor was evident in Schiff as he emerged in the second half to perform Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a set of 33 variations based on a brusque and somewhat banal waltz theme by the Viennese musician Anton Diabelli.  From the opening bars onwards, Schiff brought an intensity and rhythmic drive that persisted throughout the piece.

The variations are sprinkled with humor and intrigue, and Schiff’s playing, with its abrupt changes in dynamics and tempos, delighted the audience and kept them on their feet as they tried to figure out what Beethoven had up his sleeve.  In particular, Variation No. 13, with its alternating fortissimo and pianissimo chords, drew audible chuckles from the audience, and one could sense that Schiff enjoyed drawing out the suspense by delaying execution at critical junctures.

The Diabelli Variations reached its climax with an exciting Fugue, and concluded with a lyrical variation that mainly occupies the upper registers of the piano.  Though the concluding variation was soft, the excitement and energy in Schiff’s playing was palpable until the very end.

Fitting the general theme of the night, Schiff played as an encore the Arietta theme and variations from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor.  This was Beethoven at his most sublime, and Schiff, liberated from the no-pedal restriction imposed on his Bach playing, created beautiful washes of sound from generous use of the sustaining pedal.  By juxtaposing Beethoven with Bach, Schiff highlighted the rich musical roots of Beethoven’s music, and, perhaps unwittingly, also pointed to the expanded realm of musical possibilities made available to later generations of composers and musicians.

—Hao Yuan Kueh, Culture Spot LA

For a calendar of upcoming concerts at Disney Hall, visit www.laphil.com.