Sunday 15 December 2013

Schiff - Bach English Suites, 14 December 2013

Wigmore Hall

English Suites, BWV 806-11

András Schiff (piano)
András Schiff is certainly not one to give himself an easy life. This concert is part of a series at the Wigmore Hall in which much of Bach’s piano music will be performed, culminating in a performance of both the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations. Unfortunately, Schiff’s completist zeal does not necessarily transfer so well into satisfying programming. I encountered a more extreme case a few years ago, in which far too much Schubert – and not the most complementary Schubert – meant that often excellent performances were reduced to less than the sum of their parts. What works for a CD boxed set is rarely the best plan for a concert. Here, however, whilst a performance of the six English Suites made for a longer than usual performance, that was in itself less the problem, than the alarming unevenness of the performances as such; had they all been at the level of that of the F major Suite, the length would have justified itself.  

I was surprised at the piano tone as Schiff opened the A major Suite. Though I do not know enough about such matters to be able to say what had been done, there sounded to be something unusual about the regulation of the instrument. It seemed to marry well with Schiff’s performance, but alas I found it very difficult to warm to the latter. A strongly detaché approach soon became wearisome; perhaps more alarming was the frequent heavy-handedness with which certain entries were hammered out, and the pianist’s lack of sensitivity towards phrasing. This all sounded very different indeed from Schiff’s splendid old Decca recordings. In the Prelude, there was a degree of flexibility, but it sounded arbitrary. The Allemande offered greater involvement, but phrasing continued to be a problem, here as elsewhere offering little sense of refinement, of tapering, of shape. However, the Courantes marked a definite improvement: more animated, and not just in terms of tempo. Ornaments sounded winningly ‘French’, and the doubles actually drew me in to the performance as a performance, nicely intimate, for the first time. Alas, the ensuing Sarabande tended towards the pedantic, with little sense of meaning conveyed; fussy articulation of ornaments was the abiding impression. Sewing-machine Bach, like a parody of 1950s German chamber orchestras, came unwelcomely to the fore in the Bourrées: one might say Gould-like, but quite without eccentricity, and far heavier of tone. The playing had nothing of the Canadian pianist’s perverse brilliance; this was just remorseless, likewise the grimacing Gigue.

The Second, A minor, Suite, offered similarly mixed results. The Prelude was taken very fast : not in itself a problem, but again in the context of non legato playing, very soon became wearisome. Schiff’s unyielding approach there contrasted with the relief of, say, the Sarabande, in which weight emerged without ponderousness. Alas sewing machines once again came to the fore in the Bourrées. There was at least a far stronger sense (than in the First Suite) of gigue rhythm in the final movement, though again it proved too unyielding.

Greater light and shade were on offer from the opening of the G minor Suite, though it remained an excessively vertically-minded performance, a longer sense of line frustratingly absent. (It is, after all, just as crucial here as in Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner or Mahler.) Detaché mannerisms continued to irritate. The Allemande, however, was beautifully shaded and often, though not always, more yielding. A lively Courante gave way to what, in context, sounded as a Romantically-conceived Sarabande – though Schiff’s perverse, latter-day refusal to use the pedal was especially unfortunate here. (Why play this music on the piano if you are unwilling to use the capabilities of the modern instrument?) The Musette was splendidly characterful, without idiosyncrasy, and the Gigue benefited from a degress of involvement only sporadically present in its predecessors. It was a pity, then, that a very odd, matter-of-fact ending robbed the dance of much of its impetus.

The opening of the Fourth Suite, in F major, was not without heavy-handedness, especially in the left hand, but at least there was a sure sense of line. Its Allemande offered a good degree of chiaroscuro, whilst following dances were equally well characterised: a courtly Courante was followed by a stately, if at times slightly static, Sarabande. The closing Gigue was boisterous and would have benefited from greater flexibility; however, Bach’s thematic invention and working were commendably clear and meaningful within the sense of a greater whole.

There was a proper sense of direction to the E minor Suite, yet phrasing (especially at the close of phrases) was sometimes alarmingly crude, particularly when playing at forte. The Allemande offered a rare and very welcome sense of charm in its delicacy, likewise the Passepields. However, the two intervening movements both curiously lost their way roughly half-way through; maybe the marathon approach was taking its toll. Sadly, the Gigue, which ought surely to offer an invitation to a well-nigh Bergian labyrinth, instead served as incitement to further un-phrased heavy-handedness.

It was welcome, then, to experience a sense of direction in the final Prelude similar to that of its predecessor; here there really seemed to be something at stake, though again line was far from unbroken, Schiff’s approach ultimately proving too sectional. Alas the following two movements were disappointingly prosaic, throwing into greater contrast a lovely account of the Sarabande, given proper time to breathe and to develop, despite the odd awkward corner. A fleet first Gavotte prepared the way for a successor imbued with a radiance I could only wish I had encountered more often. The loud Gigue, sadly, seemed petulant rather than vehement. Bar lines were far too audible, again a poor substitute for telling phrasing. All was not, however, over, for Schiff elected to give an encore: a rambling account of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, whose effect was to have me longing for Edwin Fischer.