Johann Sebastian Bach
András Schiff piano
Concert recording, October 30, 2001 at the Stadtcasino, Basel
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
“This is one of those few journeys that can be repeated again and again.”
–András Schiff on the Goldberg Variations
Bach, says Schiff, “was a composer with encyclopedic ambitions.” As such, one might say that the Klavierübung—of which the Goldberg Variations are the crowning jewel—was as much an attempt to fill in a musical gap, if not to elevate a preexisting one, in a form so concise that no one could claim its place. In their profoundly moving dance between the Apollonian and Dionysian, the Variations fold and refold themselves like a constantly shifting origami figure reusing the same sheet of paper. Likewise, the collection begins and ends with an all-encompassing Aria, so that by the end one spreads that sheet out to reveal a tightly knit symmetrical pattern of inimitable proportions.
As with any pianistic interpretation of Bach, debates over medium abound. Whatever your instrumental preference, however, I put forward that Schiff’s clarity transcends any and all technical concerns. And let us not forget that the success of any recording lies as much in the hands of its engineers, instrument makers, and tuners. The clarity of this particular ECM recording, and its marriage with Schiff’s performance, is particularly refreshing, for it gives each variation such a firm position in the greater scheme of its placement that we cannot help but become utterly invested in its brief traversal. Schiff’s surgical precision lends itself particularly well to the faster variations—Nos. 1, 5, 8 (a personal favorite), and 21—as it gives them just enough added vigor to make them spring from their cages. For the slower variations—particularly Nos. 9 and 15—this approach means a validation of brevity, emboldening as it does the delicate lines they walk between speech and song. As for the more heavily syncopated numbers, such as 4, 7, 12, and 16, this feeling descends into one of rootedness. For me, Variation No. 14 is the prize and Schiff handles its demanding trills and hand-crossings with the utmost fluency, providing us with more than enough energy to work our way to the Aria’s reprise.
Listening to Schiff play Bach is always an uplifting experience, and nowhere more so than here. The palpable bond between him and the music speaks of a mutual love. The recording scintillates throughout, but is a live one, so everything from piano dampers to the occasional cough comes through. It is worth having in physical form for Schiff’s whimsical “guided tour” of the Variations included in the booklet. While this has the makings of a benchmark recording, I recommend that you also check out Keith Jarrett’s ECM recording of the same on harpsichord. The two make a lovely pair.