András Schiff’s Triumphant Trifecta

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 01.07.11 in Spotlights

Bach, J.S.: French Suites Nos. 1-6/Italian Concerto etc.

Andras Schiff

The pianist András Schiff appears at first blush to be the incarnation of diffidence. A small, soft man with a pink flush in his cheek and a thinning aureole of curls, Schiff could be mistaken for the bookish curate of a small country church. In fact, he is a musician who finds his self worth in grand-scale projects. He likes to present and record the music of his favorite composers in comprehensive marathons – all the Beethoven sonatas, say, or all the Bart�k concertos, or a whole evening of Bach. His concerts can be exhausting, his recordings best consumed over a stretch of time. “I make it hard for my audience,” he once admitted in an interview. “Everything is too easy today. TV is easy. Cell phones are easy. The Internet is easy. But art, if it’s good, requires some effort on the part of the receiver.”

Ideally, Schiff would prefer to play for a public smaller than the one he actually has. Bach’s French Suites, for example, are intimate works, probably composed for the quiet and delicate clavichord and intended for one or two listeners at a time. But the economics of concertizing means that Schiff typically performs them for several thousand people in an ample hall. He has developed a wizard’s skill at delivering an intensely private experience to a large and anonymous crowd. That’s why the recording studio suits him: unblemished quiet and a tiny, expert audience sitting in the control room. Nothing to distract him from the music. Who could ask for anything less?

Though Schiff’s repertoire ranges widely, it rests on three legs: Schubert, Bach, and Bart�k – song, spirit, and dance. The first represents the piano’s fluid, lyrical side. Schiff has spent a substantial portion of his career accompanying singers – tenor Peter Schreier and Cecilia Bartoli, among others – and that experience has given him a distinctive, liquid lyricism. He has said that it was singers who taught him how to breathe, and in that he is not alone. Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine claims that the coppery suppleness that the Met Orchestra brings even to non-vocal music comes from the players ‘understanding of the way a singer shapes a line, stretching the notes over a frame of text. The essence of good singing, and of music based on song, is flexibility and naturalness – the illusion of spontaneity. It’s no wonder that among Schiff’s more eloquent interpretations are a recording of Mendelssohn’s heartbreakingly lyrical Songs Without WordsImpromptus.

The second leg of Schiff’s tripod is J.S. Bach, especially the Well-Tempered Clavier, which encapsulates the rhythmic discipline of the musician’s life. Each of Bach’s pairs of preludes and fugues is an architectural form bounded by a chosen theme and girded by granite structure. The freestanding pieces rise up in intricate latticeworks of counterpoint, and hearing them all in sequence can feel like touring some ideal metropolis. Yet those little buildings of music contain such panoramic variety of life, that Bach, having composed a complete set, felt he had barely begun to catalogue the degrees of human devotion. So he started again, producing another 24 preludes and fugues. Schiff responds to that obsessiveness with rigor and rapture – a keen sense of the architecture of the spirit.

Schiff is a proud, though expatriate Hungarian, and his countryman Béla Bart�k forms the third leg of his musical life. Bart�k enshrined Hungary’s varied and complex folk traditions, full of asymmetrical phrases and spiraling tunes, by dressing them up for black-tie presentation. Schiff displays little interest in the harsh, percussive authenticity of the folk sources that the composer himself emphasized when he played. Instead, he gives the music a brilliant crystalline glitter. The third of the Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56, shows Schiff as a youthful hotshot, tossing off village rhythms with panache.

In concerts, on recordings, and in the company of other chamber musicians, Schiff’s playing is spare, sparkling and brilliantly exact. His style is a collection of negative virtues, a rightness that comes from avoiding extremes and idiosyncrasies. He does not indulge in sentimentality or attention-getting bravura. He rarely blazes in fury, indulges in archly poetic rubato, or fusses over a preciously turned phrase. He takes a flexible approach to the pieties of historical authenticity. But one of the things he isn’t is bland. What’s left when he takes apart the whole apparatus of interpretive mannerisms is a precisely milled ball bearing of perfect taste.