One set of variations, two very different styles

Andrei Gavrilov | Wigmore Hall Andras Schiff | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

It's hard to believe that Andrei Gavrilov is 45. The Russian-born tearaway now wears his hair long, and tied it back in a pony-tail when he played Bach's Goldberg Variations at the Wigmore Hall. Breezing on to the stage in a tent-like white shirt flowing outside his trousers, he evidently meant to blow away the usual formalities of piano recitals, waved to friends in the back row, and settled himself to read the music through dark glasses. After Variation 10, something upset him and he stared at the audience as if waiting for order to be restored. I have no idea what this small drama was all about.

It's hard to believe that Andrei Gavrilov is 45. The Russian-born tearaway now wears his hair long, and tied it back in a pony-tail when he played Bach's Goldberg Variations at the Wigmore Hall. Breezing on to the stage in a tent-like white shirt flowing outside his trousers, he evidently meant to blow away the usual formalities of piano recitals, waved to friends in the back row, and settled himself to read the music through dark glasses. After Variation 10, something upset him and he stared at the audience as if waiting for order to be restored. I have no idea what this small drama was all about.

Gavrilov's playing was equally puzzling - often impressionistic, reducing intricate counterpoint to a babble and so fast that even he sometimes lost track. He took the theme itself very slowly, giving it a beautiful veiled tone, and he kept this delicacy in the first three variations. But he bashed out some of the later ones crudely, including the swaggering French Overture half way through the set, which dounded downright clumsy. The most poignantly expressive of all the variations, number 25, was lovingly done, but the final toccata-like one was thrown away, and so much else seemed sketchy, it made you wonder if Gavrilov had bothered to practise.

By contrast, Andras Schiff was at the very peak of his form at the Festival Hall a few days later. It's impossible to imagine a more completely controlled performance of the Goldberg Variations, and yet every minute of it was alive. Nor was it altogether predictable. In Variation 25, for example, Schiff did not stress pathos but kept the tempo moving, and sang out the top voice strongly: the effect was slightly austere, but noble. Variation 28 was not treated as a virtuoso keyboard study, but taken quite gently, with infinitesimal delays before each group of trills to mark them off from the main accents. It seemed odd, though, that Schiff didn't let the end of the preceding variation lead straight into it, which it seems designed for.

Perhaps Variation 21, a canon at the seventh and a serious piece, was so forceful it sounded under undue pressure, but the virtuoso variations 5, 14 and 20 were astonishing for their brilliance and rhythmic security. Schiff knows how to dance, too, for Variation 7 was frisky, and in the final Quodlibet he caroused lustily. A wonderful evening.

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