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In Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the lights were turned off in the hall except for stage lighting and spotlights on the Steinway piano as András Schiff walked slowly to the artist's bench and sat quietly for a space.
Time was suspended.
For the next seventy-plus minutes, there were no sounds in the hall from the capacity audience. No coughing, no page-turning (with no lights, one had to have read Schiff's illuminating program notes prior to the concert), no errant cell phones. The pianist, long noted as a champion of Johann Sebastian Bach's music on the piano (an instrument for which Bach did not write), brought his impeccable technique, flawless memory, and musicianship to the service of a single Bach work: the Clavier-Übung IV ("Keyboard Exercise, Part IV), familiarly known as "the Goldberg Variations." In form, it is an Aria, followed by thirty variations and concluding with a repetition of the Aria. Although intended for a two-keyboard harpsichord, it has been performed and recorded on the keyboard instruments of Bach's time (harpsichord and organ) and on fortepiano and modern concert grand pianos.
All the data are in: the musicologists' musings, the recording reviews, the performers' perorations, the critics' commentaries; from these, we know only one indisputable fact: this work falls into that category of truly great music which cannot be forced into a single mode of performance. That being said, even though Bach never heard this work performed on a piano, what we heard from Schiff was a transcendental performance.
While I could comment on Schiff's performance of individual variations, this would be contrary to his interpretation of the entire work as a unified whole. Even the longer spaces of silence following variations 10, 15, and 22 were part of this concept. Schiff has internalized this music to the point of becoming one with it. In a recitative in his Cantata 56, Bach sets the text, "Mein Wandel auf der Welt ist einer Schiffahrt gleich" ('My journey through the world is like that of a ship's voyage"). On this concert's voyage through the sea of variations, the Schiff (the German word for "ship") took the audience along through waves of crystalline clarity of articulation and line, singing melodic phrases, moments of sheer virtuosity in the crossed-hand variations, and a synthesis of intellectual and emotional mastery.
The audience wanted more, likely not because the Goldbergs are not entirely enough, but because they did not want it to be over. Schiff finally obliged with an encore ("NOT Bach," he said as he introduced it). Also not the usual encore fare, this was no bonbon: Beethoven's Sonata in E Major, Op. 109. If one had to follow Bach's "Aria with different variations" with anything, why not this sonata, the last movement of which is, not surprisingly, a theme and variations? Here, as with the Bach, Schiff was master of the music, making the opening arpeggios sound Bachian and the slower chromatic sections sound like precursors of Liszt, whose Transcendental Etudes could be no more transcendental than Schiff's Bach.