Listening to Andras Schiff play Bach’s Goldberg Variations was like meeting 31 members of an extended musical family. Starting with the gentle and slightly pensive opening aria we greeted its siblings, cousins and distant relations. All are different yet Bach’s ingenious use of a constantly evolving bass line gives them an instantly recognizable familial trait, like the Hapsburg chin. In Schiff’s exquisite performance each was a presented with the loving but clear-eyed precision of a Rembrandt portrait. He was generous with repeats, modest with decoration – less florid than on his Decca recording made 30 years ago – and completely spared the pedal.
In 2006 Schiff played Beethoven’s last three sonatas at Symphony Hall straight through, without an interval or even breaks for applause between the works. The result was a masterclass in intensity and concentration by both performer and audience, and a moving performance full of wonders. Bach received the same treatment but with the added intimacy of a smaller venue. In nearly an hour-and-a-half nothing broke the compact between composer, performer and listener. Schiff has been accused by detractors of being stiff, pedantic and emotionally underpowered in Bach – i.e. he’s not Glenn Gould. For the unprejudiced there was nothing of that here.
The adagio Variation 25 was grave and deeply felt; the virtuoso variations preened and pranced (with deft hand-crossing by Schiff) and there was high good humour in Variation 30. When the aria re-appeared it felt as if we’d returned home, like Odysseus, after an epic and eventful journey.