Bach Concertos, Usher Hall

Seduced by his own versatility
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The Independent Culture

Watching the back view of Andras Schiff, as he played six Bach keyboard concertos and directed a small contingent of the Philharmonia Orchestra, you could not help recalling Christian Zacharias at last year's Edinburgh Festival. Zacharias was playing Mozart, not Bach, but the music was utterly fresh, original, intelligent.

Schiff plays too fast, too loud, with a rattling, powering rhythm broken only by little touches of vague caprice that mean nothing. The big Steinway, with the help of modern stringed instruments – especially the elephantine basses – gives the texture a tough, iron-bound quality, like the sound of a train going over the Forth rail bridge. It's a brilliant tour de force, naturally. But it leaves you nowhere.

If it's energy you go for, the playing is prodigious. Indeed, you could easily think that Schiff was an actor, miming the movements as actors do. He jigs about, swings from side to side, rises from the stool, his hands bouncing high from the keyboard and pirouetting into gestures for the band that are, of course, not necessary. The result is stupendous, electric, with nerve-endings quivering a foot long.

Except in the heavy-footed Concerto in F minor, you could be sure that the opening movements would be half-again as fast as they needed to be. In fact, they continually pressed faster, as though Schiff were playing them "presto possibile" and skating into an accelerando whenever he could. It sounded like someone falling over his own feet. Also, he could not resist little tricks of style, like the maintenance of tempo right up to the last note so that the ending was a surprise. In the opening allegro of the A major Concerto, it sounded as though he had hit a wall.

All these concertos are transcriptions, mostly of violin concertos. It is hard to evoke the meditative elegies of the slow movements on the piano, but Schiff occasionally achieved pathos and stillness, even simple tragedy in the F sharp minor middle movement of the A Concerto. And in the midst of the hustling finale of the D minor Concerto, there were moments of exquisite fine work when the basses and cellos were silent.

If Schiff were a worthless showman, you could dismiss his noisy pounding as mere effect. But he is, potentially, an artist of cool refinement. He has been seduced by his own staggering versatility. It is a grim lesson for young talents.

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