International festival; CLASSICAL MUSIC Andras Schiff: Bach and Bartok Usher Hall

Edinburgh Festival 97
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The Independent Culture
What is missing from the playing of Andras Schiff? This staggeringly accomplished pianist returns each year to the Edinburgh Festival, playing concertos, chamber music and solo recitals, with a repertoire that seems endless. He is sophisticated, discreet, accurate, a little bit austere. There is no suggestion of empty bravura or, thank goodness, the kind of weak espressivo that is sometimes called "making art" of the music. Everything is rattled off with elegance and taste. Yet something - personality, charisma, humour, jouisance, heaven knows what - is not to be found.

This year, he played all three Bartok piano concertos, and the whole first book of Bach's "Forty-eight", in three days. In spite of displaying every musical virtue, he never succeeded in communicating anything to speak of. Of course, the punters got their money's worth; the Second Concerto, in particular, was full of rippling, toccata-like passagework and murmuring harmonic clusters. But in the First Concerto - surely the most original of the three - Schiff failed to dominate, either physically or aesthetically. There seemed to be no sense of future; the orchestra revealed the relentlessly involved wheels within wheels of the first movement, the empty, bleak landscape of the second, with cold sounds of bass drum and side drum, but the piano seemed no more than a concertante instrument.

The Mozartian Third Concerto lacked inwardness; the still, gleaming pools of string harmony in the slow movement (beautifully achieved by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra) supported a piano cantilena that was solemnly declaimed but somehow prosaic. The closing allegro was gentle, well-oiled, without ferocity.

Bach's rigorous and contemplative style might be thought to suit this cool, studious musician. In fact, the preludes and fugues were mostly played in the traditional manner adopted by pianists, which has its roots in Czerny's old edition. The D major Prelude was a light toccata, the F sharp minor Fugue a heart-stirring lament, the A minor Fugue a bright piece de resistance. Once in a while, there was a trace of something special and memorable. The G minor Fugue was played quickly, manfully, and there was a spark of wit in the A major Fugue. There were, indeed, some exquisite moments, like the quiet insinuation of the final section in the F sharp major Fugue. But, all in all, one was simply aware of prodigious concentration, faultless technique, impeccable restraint. In a word (I believe the joke was Disraeli's about Trollope), Schiff is good, very good, so good it's a wonder he's not better.