The piano onstage last night was quite a looker. It was not a conventional black Steinway (glorious as those are). It was a brown—kind of a reddish brown—Bösendorfer. I am not 100 percent sure about the color. It looked reddish brown from my seat.
When the house lights dimmed and the lights focused on the piano, the audience oohed and aahed. I can’t remember ever hearing such a reception for an instrument.
The entire scene was striking. The gold and white of the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, here in Salzburg. The ornate, crystal chandeliers. That stunner of a piano. The white hair of the pianist, and his crisp black suit.
The pianist was András Schiff—Sir András Schiff—born in 1953. What is his nationality? He was born in Hungary (to two survivors of the Holocaust). He has moved around, lived around. He once had Austrian citizenship. He has U.K. citizenship, as indicated by that “Sir.”
He played a Bach program, or, better put: he presented a Bach evening. This was a concert-lecture, though heavier on the playing than on the speaking, thank goodness.
I say “thank goodness” because I like music—not because Schiff spoke poorly. He spoke very well: charmingly, amusingly, informatively. Sometimes deeply. He spoke in German and English, too—which lengthened the evening, but which was probably necessary, and courteous.
Our program booklet said that Schiff would play the six keyboard partitas of Bach. But, on first taking the stage, he sat down and played the aria that precedes the Goldberg Variations.
Through with the aria, he turned to the audience and said, “Guten Abend,” “Good evening.” He had played an “unannounced encore,” he said, before beginning the actual program—because after the sixth partita, he would be in no condition to play an encore.
He would not play the partitas in order, he said. He had chosen his own order: No. 5, in G major (the key of the Goldberg aria, and the following variations); No. 3, in A minor; No. 1, in B flat; No. 2, in C minor; No. 4, in D major; and No. 6, in E minor.
If I understood him correctly, he said he was too nervous to begin with No. 1, the B-flat partita. “I’m a human being,” he said, “to my shame.” Did he judge the B flat to be more difficult, or more daunting, in some way, than the others? I’m not sure, frankly.
He had a rationale for his order: the partitas ascended a scale, from G major to E minor. Also, they gave you an even distribution of major and minor. A rationalization? In any event, Schiff was entitled to his evening, and the order of the Bach partitas matters not at all. Each one is a stand-alone masterpiece.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Schiff explained, was a cosmopolitan fellow—a real European. For these partitas, he took styles from all over: France, Spain, Italy, etc. Even Scotland and Ireland, for those “gigues,” or jigs!
Schiff made a remark warning against Scottish independence. It seemed out of context, to me. A stretch.
In any case, Schiff said that Bach, for him, was the greatest European. The master’s face should be on the European flag. This made me, and others, smile.
But let me tell you: back home, where I live, people might very well accuse Bach of “cultural appropriation.” Bach, no doubt, was one of the greatest “cultural appropriators” who ever lived, and thank heaven for it.
Whether you liked them or not, Schiff’s comments were invariably interesting. The famous, beloved gigue from the Partita in B flat? Bach got the technique—crosshanded—from Scarlatti, Schiff said. That would be Domenico Scarlatti—not his father, Alessandro—born in 1685, the same year as Bach (and the same year as Handel, another master cultural appropriator).
Scarlatti was a fabulous keyboard player, said Schiff, in addition to a composer. But he lived in Spain and got terribly fat, enjoying that country’s magnificent food. Thereafter, he was not able to play crosshanded.
How did Schiff, who is fit, play? I would say the outstanding quality of his Bach was definition. Everything was clearly defined. Schiff knows his own mind, and he lets you know it, too. He is a very intelligent, very capable musician. Not for nothing has he had a long, laureled career.
Like many people throughout history, Schiff associates keys with colors. G major, to him, is blue—the kind of blue you see in Vermeer. The key of A minor is burgundy, or dark red. B flat: silver. C minor: bronze.
What about the other keys of the partitas? D major and E minor? I can’t tell you what Schiff’s colors are. He played the final two partitas on the second half of the program (“half”). The first half had lasted almost two hours. And, boy, was it hot in the Grosser Saal. Really hot. The place was shut up tight as a drum. Not a hint of air was circulating, as far as I could tell.
Twenty years ago, I dubbed the Grosser Saal (“Great Room”) the “Grosser Sauna.” It lived up, or down, to that nickname last night. Is Bayreuth that hot during an August Götterdämmerung?
But I can tell you that, on conclusion of the first half, the crowd was very appreciative of Schiff—clapping robustly and even stamping their feet. He is indeed an adornment to our cultural life.