Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, pianist András Schiff presented the final program in his six-concert Bach Project, which began in October of 2012. The full cycle was presented under the joint auspices of San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), with whom Schiff served as performer-in-residence under the Project San Francisco program. The original plan was to conclude the series with the fourth and final volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) volumes, the BWV 988 set of 30 variations on an aria best known as the “Goldberg” variations. However, by the time the final concerts were announced this past September, Schiff, who is not known for giving short recitals, decided to supplement Bach’s approach to writing variations with that of Ludwig van Beethoven, thus concluding his SFS residency with a performance of marathon proportions.
Throughout the Bach Project I have made it a point to stress the significant role of the Clavier-Übung in the programming. Three of the four volumes were performed (the third being for organ), along with both volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the “French” and “English” suites. All of this music is focused around that operative noun Übung, in that it would be reasonable to assume that it was composed for pedagogical, rather than concert, purposes. Notwithstanding Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s famous (notorious?) story about the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and his insomniac patron, Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, BWV 988 is yet another example of Bach’s approach to pedagogy, which could be both systematic and imaginative at the same time.
That approach rested on the precept that keyboard mastery required both physical proficiency in striking every key the right way at just the right time and the inventive proficiency to elevate every performance beyond any marks that happen to have been made on the score pages. Where BWV 988 is concerned, the basis for such invention resides in a 32-measure bass line (“Always follow the bass line,” as Schiff emphasized in his notes for the program book.), neatly divided into two 16-measure halves, each of which is repeated. When one strips away all the embellishments, that bass line descends through four scale steps in the first half and through five scale steps in the second. In other words, everything distills down to “30 variations on a scale.”
That is where the lessons about inventiveness take over the field. As Schiff’s notes outlined, in the course of those variations the performer (and listener) encounters Bach’s favorite dance forms, two-part and three-part inventions, canons, improvisatorial toccatas, an overture, and, of course, fugal composition, all wrapped up with a “Grand Finale” (Schiff’s words) quodlibet, which adds two folk songs as a “parting gesture.” All of this, remember, unfolds from nothing more than a descending major scale.
If one is then to bring this pedagogical exercise into a concert hall, the challenge is to make the experience as significant for the listener as Bach wanted it to be for his pupils. Schiff’s approach was to deal with the traversal of those 30 variations as a journey. Like any journey, it involved exploration and discovery; but it also recognized that there would be points of rest before proceeding further down the path. He thus structured his performance into four large sections, taking extended pauses before beginning Variation 11, Variation 16, and Variation 23. (Since Schiff was playing from memory, I would conjecture that this division into sections also helped him keep the plan for the entirety in his head.)
At a more detailed level, probably the most significant feature of Schiff’s approach to performance was his ability to endow each variation with its own characteristic personality. To some extent that personality was reflected in his physical appearance, both facial expressions and approaches to gesture; but it was through his sensitive approach to touch and his technique for sorting out the different voices of Bach’s counterpoint that each variation established its own unique voice. The gamut of “personality types” ranged from the quietly meditative, through the impishly prankish, into the acutely disciplined, and culminating in the flamboyantly virtuosic. As journeys go, this was less a walk through the fields than a ride on a roller-coaster, making for a truly exciting public display of music that may have never been intended for more than the private study of the eager pupil.
The sheer number of the variations serves as a reminder that, for Bach, invention was a bit like eating potato chips: You can’t stop with just one or even two. I have previously referred to this as Bach’s “and another thing” approach to composition and observed that it was particularly evident in the “English” suites portion of Schiff’s Bach Project. If through BWV 988 Bach was telling us that there are never “enough” variations, then Schiff took that lesson to heart by programming Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120, his set of 33 variations on a simple little waltz by Diabelli.
While some might call this overkill, it can also be taken as a perspective on the progress in music history where invention is concerned. Writing variations was a significant approach to composition throughout Beethoven’s life, and the variations on Diabelli’s theme were his last major pursuit of that formal strategy. By juxtaposing BWV 988 and Opus 120, Schiff provided a rare opportunity to consider these two extended exercises in terms of both the similarities and differences. The key similarity is that both pursue the theme itself (which, in both cases, is extremely simple) through a wide variety of structural frameworks. On the other hand we can probably assume that Beethoven expected this music to be performed before an audience; and, as a result, he tended to be more “up front” about the expressiveness demanded by such a performance. As a result, while there was as much “character differentiation” in Schiff’s execution of Beethoven’s variations, it would be reasonable to assume that he was taking more guidance from Beethoven in establishing those character types.
The notes in the program book for Opus 120 were not provided by Schiff. Instead, Scott Foglesong laid out an architectural plan, dividing the variations into an “opening” (the first ten), “middle” (the next fourteen), and “final” (the remaining nine). His discussion also took a perspective Janus-faced approach, identifying when a variation reflected influence from the past (including Bach) or may be responsible for influences on later composers (such as Frédéric Chopin, Richard Wagner, and Claude Debussy). Schiff’s performance, on the other hand, seemed focused on the here-and-now of Beethoven’s own “immediate present,” exploiting that “and another thing” technique both in the progress from one variation to the next and within the prolongations of a single variation. The result was an invigorating and highly personable account of music that too often, like so many other Beethoven compositions, runs the risk of being relegated to monument status.
One may also say that Beethoven followed in Bach’s footsteps with his own approach to that “and another thing” technique of prolongation. It therefore should not have surprised anyone in the audience that Schiff would have his own “and another thing” moment. After taking a generous number of bows to a highly appreciative audience, Schiff returned to his piano batch at which “and another thing” meant another round of variations. His encore was the second (and final) movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata in C minor (the last of his sonatas), which happens to be a set of six variations on a theme marked Arietta (which may, itself, have been a nod to Bach).
This was an ambitious undertaking, but Schiff is rarely modest in his selection of encores. It was also logical, since Schiff’s recent Diabelli-Variationen recording for ECM precedes his recorded performance of Opus 120 with that of Opus 111 in its entirety. The listener thus experiences the transition from the coda for the Opus 111 variations into the statement of Diabelli’s waltz. When taken as an encore, the Opus 111 variations provide the listener with some additional context for the Opus 120 variations that had just been experienced.
The result was that last night’s listeners were presented with an embarrassment of riches, but Schiff’s interpretations were so personable and so compelling that one was barely aware of the extended duration of the evening.