Andras Schiff has returned to the Goldberg Variations 20 years after his acclaimed first recording for Decca. During that period he has emerged as one of the foremost Bach interpreters of his generation, and certainly one of the most warm and human in his approach. Schiff prizes a cantabile voice in his piano to such an extent that he travels with his own technician and a piano always prepared by the same 'maestro' in Pescara, Italy.
The primacy of lyricism is also apparent in Schiff's playing, which is nuanced and supple throughout. He can be powerfully virtuosic when the music calls for it, as in variations 14 or 29 of the set, but elsewhere he is mercurial, commenting on one variation that 'it's difficult to understand those interpreters who attack this piece with machinegun-like aggression'. Schiff always favours the melodic and singing quality of the music over the pristine geometry of Bach's counterpoint, with a sparing use of the pedal, very few hard edges and more dynamic shades of grey than are often found in interpretations of Baroque music.
Schiff has a tendency in slower numbers to stagger the hands so that the left hand plays fractionally before the right, a mannerism particularly apparent in the opening and closing Aria, and which can become irritating. The other small disappointment of the recording was a certain sense of haste in variation 25, the tragic heart of the work whose poise and space Gould captured so well in his famous reading.
Minor niggles apart, it's astonishing that this note-perfect recording was taken from a live performance (in Basel), which also provides a generous acoustic. No review would be complete, either, without mentioning the wonderful sleeve notes, written by Schiff himself and featuring an acrostic tribute in verse to the pianist by Vikram Seth. Schiff comes over like a dandyish schoolteacher bringing his subject alive, but always willing to be distracted from lessons by the temptation to tell a good anecdote. On the inauthentic use of piano, for example, in a work for which Bach expressly prescribed the harpsichord, he cautions: 'let's not forget we are talking about an hour and a quarter of music - hands on heart, can you listen to the harpsichord that long?' With Schiff at the piano, the time certainly flies by.
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