A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

András Schiff / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

On April 17, pianist András Schiff continued his survey of Bach’s complete solo keyboard works at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a performance of the Six French Suites and the French Overture.

Schiff’s program was singular in its organization – so singular, in fact, that the audience was unsure whether to applaud after the end of each piece.  Instead of settling for a shorter program with three French Suites for each half, as a lesser mortal might have done, Schiff completed all six Suites in a marathon first half lasting an hour and a half, and followed with a sizable second half consisting of the French Overture and an extended encore of – surprise! – more Bach.

The performance was quintessential Schiff in many respects – it showcased his thoughtful lyricism, crystal-clear articulation, and even his signature black mandarin-collared suit; however, the most remarkable aspect of Schiff’s performance Wednesday night was his ability to unite these disparate and seemingly unrelated dance movements in a coherent manner.  While it is unlikely that Bach intended for these pieces to be played together, Schiff brought the diverse styles and sentiments of the different Suites together to tell a surprisingly compelling musical story.

The first three of Bach’s French Suites are in the minor key, and Schiff struck a generally somber tone throughout them.  The moods in the dances were at times pensive – particularly during the slower Sarabande movements – and at times more agitated.  The Third French suite in B minor culminated with a lively and slightly turbulent Gigue, and the audience could not resist offering their applause at its dramatic ending.

The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth French Suites are in the major key and possess a warmer disposition; as if to clear the air after the vehement ending of the Third Suite, Schiff started the Allemande of the Fourth Suite in a subdued manner and let the dynamics increase progressively with its rising melodic line.  Letting the energy build up gradually throughout these pieces, Schiff eventually burst into vigorous dance towards the end of the Fourth Suite and maintained this energy throughout the Fifth and Sixth Suites.

For the second half, Schiff played Bach’s French Overture in B minor, essentially an extended French suite with a regal overture at the beginning and a few additional dance movements.  To cap off this Bach marathon, he then encored – to the palpable delight of the audience – with all three movements of Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major.

—Hao Yuan Kueh, Culture Spot LA