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REVIEW: András Schiff’s 60th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall

13 January 2014

András Schiff
Wigmore Hall
21 December

‘We are the luckiest 550 people in London tonight’ exclaimed John Gilhooly, director of the Wigmore Hall, at András Schiff’s 60th birthday concert on 21 December. Birthday presents are usually offered to the celebrant, but here it was the audience who received a very special gift, the Goldberg and the Diabelli Variations performed by one of the world’s most inspiring artists. At the close of the recital, Schiff received the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, presented by the HRH the Duke of Kent. Gilhooly, chairman of both the Wigmore Hall and the RPS, highlighted Schiff’s achievements as pianist, educator, and festival director and praised him alongside earlier gold medallists Rubinstein, Horowitz, Arrau, Brendel and Uchida.

Schiff’s programme choice was symbolic: he made his Wigmore debut in 1978 with the Goldberg Variations, and his interpretations of Bach since then have become legendary. By contrast it is only in the last two years that he has performed and recorded the Diabelli Variations, following a much-lauded Beethoven sonata cycle on CD and concert platform. Performing those monumental works side by side underlined their special connection: Beethoven’s 33 variations were both inspired by and aimed to surpass Bach’s 32 variations (counting the Arias).

The concert was mesmeric from start to finish. Alert to every characterisation and contrast imaginable, each individual variation was full of detail, colour, shading and voicing. The 80-minute journey traversed a lifetime of experience with a myriad of moods: lilting and dance-like, quicksilver and racy, contrapuntally steely or springy, the textures finely layered to bring out each line of the canons, ornamentation both delicate and, as with trills and mordents, more emphatic. The passagework flowed seamlessly from one keyboard extreme to the other, shifting from the ebullient and optimistic to the contemplative and reflective.

Overall the brief fast variations (such as the breathtaking toccata-like var. 20) astonished. Schiff became an explorer, pushing at the boundaries of sound and colour. This was especially evident in the tender ‘Alla breve’ var. 22, and the expressive heart of the set, var. 25, played as an expansive nocturne with an air of inner mystique, the chromatic sinewy voicing creating an ambivalent angst that delighted in its own anguish.

Romanticism of a different cast took flight with the Diabelli, a masterly account full of Bachian polyphonic felicities, both tender and ebullient, and shot through with Schumannesque oppositions. The abrupt contrasts of dynamics as from the initial majestic march to the quieter third variation (Beethoven’s original variation 1 from his first 1819 version), was vividly presented. The rumbling bass figures that add ominous chromaticism were handled with just the right emphasis – above all Schiff does not dwell on gestures, and his sound colour is clear, lucid – eschewing any type of pedal blurring. In contrast with the Beethovenian soundworlds of greats like Kempff and Schnabel, Schiff’s sonority self-consciously aims at that of a ‘restorer’, an idea pursued in his double Diabelli recording on two early pianos from 1821 and 1921. Overall this was a reading with finely drawn characters and moods – exhilarating energy in the fast movements, and flowing impressionism in slower variations.

At one point during the witty var. 13, with dry chord pairs swapping high and low registers, one of the pregnant silences was interrupted by an audience member’s loud coughing: unperturbed by this invasive interruption Schiff smiled at the audience to remark ‘very good’ and at a similar silence a few seconds later, gave a telling look; eliciting further audience laughter; it was his way of telling us to relax before switching to the restraint of the ensuing var. 14 with its double dotted rhythms that commanded rapt attention. Further humour emerged in the Mozart parody of var. 22 with uncanny harmonic detail in the glistening grupetti. The final group of variations achieved a visionary sense of arrival and climax, the three purposeful minor variations followed by a tongue-in-cheek fugue that featured startling new voices; the final ethereal minuet attained translucent heights, highlighting its connections to the Arietta of Op. 111.

Indeed we almost believed Schiff when he joked that he was going to play Op. 111 as an encore, but he instead regaled us with a magical miniature, composed in memory of his mother by György Kurtág, his friend and mentor, present in the audience, also a recipient of the RPS Award. It symbolised Schiff’s unique artistic achievement, one which, while saluting its origins, also looked ahead to the future. On the occasion of his 60th birthday we may all wish Andras Schiff many happy returns to the concert platform and, echoing HRH the Duke of Kent’s congratulatory remarks, ‘many more years of glorious music making’.

Malcolm Miller

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