At Strathmore, Andras Schiff delivers immaculate, unvarnished ‘French Suites’

April 8, 2013

Andras Schiff is one of a handful of musical artists today who can write their own ticket. For a pianist, it’s almost unthinkable to build a major career without programming the works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ravel or Prokofiev, but this Hungarian master has all but ignored these cornerstones of the repertory, focusing instead on the Austro-German classics from Bach through Brahms (with a few early excursions into Bartok). This singularly narrow approach would be fatal to anyone else, but Schiff has demonstrated that depth is more important than breadth.

He took this concept to extremes in his recital Sunday at Strathmore, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, but the power of his musical intellect filled the hall and brought an exhausted audience to its feet. The program had been announced as all six of Bach’s “French Suites,” a full meal if there ever was one. He then added the “Overture in the French Style” (Bach’s single most imposing stand-alone work after the “Goldberg Variations” and the “The Well-Tempered Clavier”).

This added up to two solid hours of music, and it was a gripping evening — note-perfect, full of imagination and impeccable musicianship. Schiff makes you listen to Bach on his own terms. There is no underlining or exclamation points, no hesitations before surprising harmony changes, no exaggerated characterizations of the dances. Both feet remained flat on the floor all night; he never touched either pedal, shaping the harmony changes and creating the legatos one note at a time.

Given this self-imposed restriction, the dynamic range was narrower than one often hears. Even in the most anguished sarabands, Schiff declined to tap the full expressive range of the instrument at his disposal. He kept the focus squarely on the genius of the structures and phrases themselves.

His ornamentation was a marvel of subtlety — just little touches here and there on repeats, but everything sounded natural and purling. Schiff’s tempos meander slightly at times, and without discernible reasons. There were some exhilarating, driving gigues that channeled Glenn Gould, but in the more contemplative movements the tempo could drift. But the power of the music and the interpretation was still overwhelming, and the ovation went on and on until Schiff gave us the entire “Italian Concerto” for an encore.


Andras Schiff (Birgitta Kowsky/Birgitta Kowsky)

Battey is a freelance writer.

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