© The Financial Times Ltd 2014 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
December 26, 2013 12:03 pm
It is tempting, but mistaken, to describe András Schiff’s 60th birthday concert as a marathon: it comprised Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, two of the longest and most demanding works in the solo keyboard repertoire. Each is worth a concert on its own. Neither offers the performer a break in the course of an hour or more. But a marathon implies endurance and muscular doggedness. Schiff, who chose the Goldberg Variations for his Wigmore Hall debut in 1978, hardly broke sweat. His dexterity and focus only increased as the evening progressed, as if he could have gone on to deliver Beethoven’s Herculean Hammerklavier sonata as an encore.
Schiff did return to the keyboard – to play a tiny, touching piece by György Kurtág, written after the death of Schiff’s mother, a Hungarian compatriot, with the dedication “in remembrance of a pure soul”. That was more of a “thank you” than an encore, for the formal part of the evening had ended with the Duke of Kent presenting Schiff with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, an award that puts him in the company of Rubinstein, Brendel and Arrau. His acceptance speech was charming and modest – the very opposite of this recital.
There is no other pianist today who could pull off such a programme so effortlessly, but the temptation during the Goldbergs was to ask why Schiff should want to lay on such a big “meal”, other than to flaunt his prowess to an adoring audience and demonstrate that, at 60, he is at the peak of his powers. This was an interpretative artist putting himself on a pedestal, basking in his own glory, rather than serving Bach or Beethoven with humility. Yes, Bach’s trilling was thrilling, the cross-hands feats had playful fluency, the fugues sounded impeccably crisp and the densest counterpoints always communicated a musicianly sense of line. But what both sets of variations ultimately need is a touch of humanity, a variation of pace, a sense of expressive climax. By emphasising self-satisfied virtuosity, Schiff almost turned these masterworks into recreational fodder.
The Diabellis sounded fresher, wittier, more impulsive and introspective than on his new recording. But the lesson of Schiff’s recital is an age-old one: more sometimes means less.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.