Any doubt about the suitability of the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations vanished with the opening ‘Aria’, which served as a delightfully cool remedy to the stifling heat of this late-evening. András Schiff’s appearance just before conveyed a similar calmness; he waited several moments to ensure an atmosphere of increased concentration before beginning.
In spite of the delicacy and softness of the initial sound, which nevertheless filled the Hall, you soon became accustomed to the modest quality of the piano (a modified Steinway) and which allowed full immersion into the contrapuntal complexities of the majesty and scope of this music. The gentler and more reflective Variations – such as IX, XIII and the melancholic XV – floated by both beautifully and resonantly. The famous G-minor Variation (XXV, 'Black Pearl') was not indulged, nor was it subject to any inappropriate exaggerations, and became the more potent because of it.
Very little is boisterous or exuberant in Schiff’s Bach – there are none of the “precipitous outbursts” that Glenn Gould wrote about and championed in his Goldberg recordings. That isn't to say that Schiff’s interpretation lacks character, for at times he makes bold, intriguing decisions, such as repeating material an octave lower in Variation XVIII. The rhythmic clarity and the fractionally delayed use of the right-hand are also very distinct features of his playing. So too the improvised embellishments he adopts during repeats, such as Murray Perahia also utilises. At times, such as during the excitable Variation V, the effect was thrilling. More importantly, the wonderful spontaneity of such ornamentation didn't once distract from the broader direction of the music, and helped to underline the astonishingly abundant novelty of harmonic ideas.
Schiff’s Bach is ultimately persuasive because of its consistency; by the return of the ‘Aria’ (which fascinatingly offered a reduced use of decoration) it felt as though we had witnessed the construction of a great Baroque edifice. This was what felt truly impressive and special about a reading in which nothing seemed out of place. It was a privilege to be in the company of such great music and such a great musician.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms