Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Ludwig van Beethoven: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120
András Schiff (piano)
A. Schiff (© Courtesy of the Royal Conservatory)
This was certainly a performance that those attending will be talking about for a long time to come.
Mr. Schiff played the introductory aria of the Goldberg Variations with a deliberate “now listen to this” tempo. If one word were to sum up the whole performance, it would be “clarity” as the contrasting moods of each of the 30 variations were deftly expressed. A second word might well be “inevitability” in that every note and phrase simply seemed so right. He never once used the pedal but still managed to maintain a flowing, singing tone throughout.
Schiff omitted some of the decorations in the repeat of the aria at the end of the 75-minute work; this helped give the movement a valedictory quality. He then held a rapt silence, always a magical moment.
The Diabelli Variations were also characterized by the contrasts of light and shade implicit in the music. András Schiff’s manner is so undemonstrative it almost amounts to a type of mannerism. His alert engagement in the 13th vivace variation, however, caused a ripple of laughter. The 14th variation, grave e maestoso is the longest variation and the Diabelli’s profound core; Schiff’s thoughtful, probing performance was a marvel of mesmerizing understatement. Beethoven did not give the work a big, bravura finish; instead, the final section ambles toward a single declarative note that Schiff held an amazingly long time.
Unbelievably, there was an encore, and not just a tidbit, but the second and final movement - over 15 minutes long - of Beethoven’s final Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, composed at about the same time as the Diabelli Variations. It also contains a canon and other echoes of the Goldberg Variations. This gave us a rare chance to compare the deeply probing ways of two of Beethoven’s culminating pieces.
I see that András Schiff will be celebrating his 60th birthday on December 21 at London’s Wigmore Hall with this same daunting program. I also see (no surprise) that, like this Koerner Hall performance, it is sold out.