A darkened hall, a box of hammers, and a pair of hands – this was enough to draw a capacity crowd to Sir Andras Schiff’s late-night recital of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Composed to cure a rich patron’s insomnia, this extraordinary work makes supreme demands on technique, imagination, and memory, and great pianists are drawn to it like climbers to Everest.
Glenn Gould was one of Schiff’s exemplars for this work, but his intimate investigation of its mysteries took place in the recording studio. For Schiff, who has recorded it several times, it’s a comfort zone through which he roams at will, and we got a sense of that comfort as – playing on a Fabbrini Steinway - he launched into the opening statement of the theme. With crystalline clarity of articulation, ornamentation which was delicate but not fussy, and a perfect legato with almost no pedal, we were taken at a relaxed pace through this landscape of mystical threes, as a succession of toccatas, character pieces, and polyphonic canons unfolded seamlessly apart from three magisterial pauses.
The emotion was restrained and the virtuosity was dazzling, with lightning hand-crossings and cascades of triplets spattered with trills, and at the dark heart of the work – Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’ variation – he cast a spell from which one could sense the entire hall subsequently awaken.