There is almost nothing in the musical literature with which to compare Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but watching András Schiff playing this 75-minute work makes one realize what a physical feat it is also.
In a concerto, the soloist has moments to rest when the orchestra is playing, or in a slow movement when the hands are moving at a more leisurely pace, but the Goldberg Variations has one scintillating variation after another, many coruscating with ornamentation or running at speed from one end of the range to the other.
Schiff performed it at Benaroya Hall Friday night, opening the Seattle Symphony’s Distinguished Artists Series for this season. The Hungarian pianist is one of the few musicians who has become a towering figure in the interpretation and performance, in recording and on stage, of this profound musical work. He has recorded it twice. The first recording, from over 20 years ago, has been this generation’s definitive performance until he made another one recently, incorporating his latest thinking.
The large audience sat as though carved in stone as Schiff played. Being written for the harpsichord, the Variations are meant to be clearly articulated, no matter how fast the notes. Schiff often had his hands bouncing lightly up off the keys as he gave it that articulation. This is much harder on a piano than on a harpsichord as, firstly, the piano keys are far heavier to depress, and secondly, piano notes are geared to a long decay time. Add to that continually playing at many notes per second, lightly and in a fashion which shapes the music, and the control needed is phenomenal. He played throughout without pedal, as harpsichords had none.
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Though the torrents of notes may on paper make the Variations appear quick and agitated, in reality the piece is more like the rippling of a little stream over pebbles. Often in Schiff’s hands the notes flew by so fast and lightly one could barely imagine that it was possible to play them. In order to do so for 70-plus minutes on end requires extremely relaxed hands and supple fingers, so as not to become exhausted to the point of stumbling. Watching Schiff, one could see the apparent ease with which he played, though a few times in the performance, Schiff made a small hiatus between variations, when perhaps he was resting his fingers briefly. There never appeared a moment when he hit a wrong note, or the run was less than clear, or the dynamics were out of sync.
His performance demeanor is notable also. He walks out on stage slowly and with very straight back, sits down with that same straight back and plays, only his hands moving a few inches above the keys, self-effacing, as though he is merely the conduit for Bach’s music. And then he rises, bows in stately fashion to all sides of the audience and walks slowly out.
Brought back five times for vociferous plaudits from the audience, he relented and, amazingly, played an encore. Even more amazingly, it was the complete Sonata No. 30, Op. 109, by Beethoven.