Almost exactly a year ago, this site announced a major Bach Project, conceived by pianist András Schiff and involving thee separate tours of the United States between the beginning of the fall of 2012 and the end of the fall of 2013. The final tour in this project will consist of concerts at which he will perform the first and last parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) volumes, the six keyboard partitas and the BWV 988 set of 30 variations on an aria theme, best known as the “Goldberg” variations. There will also be a performance of the six “English” suites in Los Angeles, since Schiff was unable to schedule their performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last spring. The full schedule for this coming fall is as follows:
October 6, San Francisco, California, Davies Symphony Hall: partitas
October 9, Los Angeles, California, Walt Disney Concert Hall: English suites
October 11, Seattle, Washington, Benaroya Hall: “Goldberg” variations
October 13, San Francisco, California, Davies Symphony Hall: “Goldberg” variations
October 16, Los Angeles, California, Walt Disney Concert Hall: partitas
October 20, Los Angeles, California, Wald Disney Concert Hall: “Goldberg” variations
October 23, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: “Goldberg” variations
October 25, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Hill Auditorium: “Goldberg” variations
October 27, Chicago, Illinois, Symphony Center: “Goldberg” variations
October 30, New York, New York, Carnegie Hall: partitas
November 1, Boston, Massachusetts, Jordan Hall: “Goldberg” variations
November 5, New York, New York, Carnegie Hall: “Goldberg” variations
In addition, audiences in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York will get an “added attraction.” At these four venues, the performance of BWV 988 will be followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120, his set of 33 variations on the waltz theme that Anton Diabelli circulated to 50 other major composers based in Austria (some of whom were recommended by Beethoven), with the request to compose a single variation. Diabelli would publish this collection in 1824, while Beethoven would complete his 33 variations in 1823 and have it published that same year.
These four performances will thus offer a celebration of the inventive diversity of variations as practiced by two major composers, Bach in the middle of the eighteenth century and Beethoven about 80 years later. As preparation for this occasion, on September 24 ECM New Series will release Schiff’s latest recording, Diabelli-Variationen (currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com). This is a two-CD set with two separate recordings of Opus 120. On the first disc Schiff plays a Bechstein grand built in 1921, the sort of instrument that would have been played by early twentieth-century champions of Beethoven, such as Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel. The second disc then features a Hammerflügel, a fortepiano made by Franz Brodmann around 1820 with extra pedals to expand the sonorous capacity of the instrument. On the first disc Opus 120 is preceded by Beethoven’s final piano sonata (Opus 111 in C minor), whose second (and final) movement is an Arietta (with a nod to Bach?) followed by six variations, serving somewhat as an “overture” for Opus 120. The second disc begins with Opus 120, followed by the Opus 126 set of six bagatelles, Beethoven’s final composition for solo piano, serving as an “afterword” for the 2-CD collection.
There is no doubting the value of having these two performances of Opus 120 available “back-to-back.” The first amounts to a tribute to the Beethoven that was transformed into a monument in the late nineteenth century. This is Beethoven played the way the best conservatory students aspire to play, providing the perfect balance between technical attention to every last detail and intense expressiveness. Schiff’s performance is stirring in every conceivable positive connotation of that word.
The Hammerflügel performances, on the other hand, might be taken as an anthropological hypothesizing of the nature of Beethoven, himself, as a working musician. Through Schiff’s performance we can appreciate the extent to which these 33 variations are not only exploring the vast grammatical potential afforded by constructs of counterpoint and harmony but also the sonorous potential of an instrument of Beethoven’s own time. The Hammerflügel may not have been able to put out the decibel strength of a twentieth-century piano; but it was still capable of summoning up its own brand of intimidating sounds (even if some of the intimidation involved the fear that the instrument might not survive the performance).
The selection of Opus 111 as an “overture” is also highly satisfying and not just because of that “Arietta” connection. Much has been made of the simplistic nature of Diabelli’s waltz, often with the disparaging suggestion that Beethoven had made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Nevertheless, the waltz is clearly a “theme,” while the Opus 111 Arietta pushes our expectations for what a theme can be to an almost absurd limit. Following a performance in San Francisco of Opus 111 this past August, I suggested that the Arietta is little more than the unfolding of the intervals of a C major triad, whose initial statement is subjected to a barrage of “ambiguous harmonies, intense contrapuntal interplay, and a prodigious share of rhythmic eccentricities.” Since all of these rhetorical devices emerge again in Opus 120 (and for one “last hurrah” in Opus 126), Opus 111 does much to prepare the attentive listener for the far more massive set of Diabelli variations.
This new recording demonstrates, once again, how much Schiff brings to his performances, drawing upon an impressive balance of scholarly understanding with rhetorical expressiveness.