Amazing all-Bach recital

REVIEW / CONCERT

ANDRAS SCHIFF PLAYS BACH'S GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

Andras Schiff, piano

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall/Sunday

Following his all-Beethoven programme in Singapore in 2014, Hungary-born Sir Andras Schiff, this year's Ong Teng Cheong professor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, presented an astounding all-Bach recital.

He included the Goldberg Variations, perhaps the most celebrated set of theme and variations in the keyboard repertoire.

The works in the programme were all written for the harpsichord with two manuals, which are generally used as forte (loud) and piano (soft) manuals, whereas Bach's other solo keyboard works are for a single manual harpsichord. This makes the use of a large modern concert piano even more interesting musically, as the performer has more instructions from Bach on the choice of manual during the performance.

The concert opened with the three-movement Italian Concerto, BWV971, a solo in which the two manuals of the harpsichord are used to represent the solo and orchestra parts of a concerto. Schiff's distinct voicing of parts, crystalline fingering and judicious use of pedal made this a textbook performance. There was some room for quibble as to whether his strict tempos reflected an "Italianate" performance, but the fluency and lightness of touch were delightful.

The opening of the French Overture, BWV831, was immediately recognisable as being in French baroque style, reminiscent of composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Published in the same volume as the Italian Concerto, the structure of the French Overture, with its six dances and the final movement Echo, are a complete contrast. Schiff's warmer touch and more floral ornamentation captured this to perfection, and an early curtain call at the end of the first half was an early signal that he was in sublime form.

His second recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations in 2001 is held in highest regard among aficionados. Fifteen years on, further evolution of his interpretation and performance was evident. From the probing opening theme through the three contemplative variations in a minor key to the reprise of the theme, this was a masterclass in musical interpretation, with no let-up in concentration or technical control at any point.

The gentler variations, in particular, were performed with the lilt and sensitivity of lullabies, which are fitting for a work written by Bach for the bedtime listening of a Count. The livelier movements, to be performed on the forte or both forte and piano manuals of the harpsichord, were full of drive and rhythm, but never overplayed. Schiff performed the work with all repeats, embellishing the repeated sections with subtle ornamentation and dynamic shading, which captivated his listeners and made the 70-minute work ease by.

An extended pause followed the closing aria, then the performance was greeted by rapturous applause and the most spontaneous standing ovation this reviewer has witnessed at a classical recital in Singapore.

Schiff could have justifiably omitted any encore, as this was already one of the most substantial and rewarding recitals heard here. Instead, after countless rounds of graciously acknowledging the applause, he treated everyone to another 30 minutes of wondrous playing in the form of five encores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Amazing all-Bach recital'. Print Edition | Subscribe