J S Bach
Keyboard Concertos -
in F minor, BWV1056
in A, BWV1055
in D minor, BWV1052

Philharmonia Orchestra directed by Andras Schiff (piano)
Andras Schiff and the Philharmonia gave a whole evening of Bach concertos in London last year; it proved too much of a good thing. Oh, for a pair of oboes to offer contrast to the strings … oh, for a different genre, a different composer.
Breaking the half-dozen works into two Edinburgh soirees, this, the second, once again posed questions as to Bach style and interpretation. Bach on the piano is preferable to his harpsichord – counterpoint and part writing are more lucid. Counterpoint is Schiff’s watchword.
Describing Schiff’s way with Bach - didactic, aloof, metrical, calculated, disciplined. None of these are ideal, if allowing an idea of my response. It’s more a lack of characterisation. Perhaps Schiff reveres the music too much; his overriding concern is to present it as being pure, ’holy’ even.
Schiff can certainly spin something from the Elysian fields – the ’Largo’ from BWV1056 – or emotionally engage with the richly ornate ’Larghetto’ of the A major. In the various ’Allegro’ movements, Schiff’s concern for solo and ensemble parity, internalism and dialogue (violins are antiphonal) is laudable; Schiff points up surface incident with relish. However, despite alert, sympathetic support from the Philharmonia’s strings (about half of them, founded on just two double basses), charges of monotony are not precluded despite some scrupulous dynamic contrasts.
Schiff relishes interplay and decoration, which is displayed within clearly defined parameters; Bach is on his best behaviour, he is immaculately tailored, the conversation is polite and erudite. Maybe this is why the audience was so enthusiastic, so reluctant to let Schiff go – his divine intervention bringing spiritual comfort maybe.
There was though a shortfall in musical nourishment and presence. The expansive, weighty D minor concerto was tautly driven, but its monumentality proved elusive – what would Arrau and Klemperer have made of it, I wondered. For a few bars in the first movement, Schiff threw off his manacles and introduced Beethovenian declamation, which did grab attention. The ’Adagio’ raised suspicions - the spare solo line and pallid accompaniment suggested a Steinway ’grand’ and non-vibrato strings as being incongruous; the movement’s religiosity outstayed its welcome.
For encores, the outer movements of Italian Concerto (BWV971) – with no strings attached, ’piano Bach’ was confirmed as valid, though Schiff’s objective clarity invited me to recall Gould’s ’living’ incisiveness, Weissenberg’s vibrancy and Brendel’s revelations.
An evening of perfection for many; my doubts persist – Schiff, his discrimination and devotion unquestioned, places Bach not only in his own world but premeditates one that is rather exclusive and musically detached.

  • This concert, and the one of 14 August, is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 21 September

 

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