When it came time for Johann Sebastian Bach to publish his Opus 1, what work do you think he picked? One of the sacred cantatas? One of the Brandenburg Concertos? One of the cello suites? No, none of the above. In 1726, Bach chose his B flat major Partita to start his publishing career – and once a year for the next five years, he published five more partitas, then collected them under the title Clavier-Übung in 1731. When it came time for Hungarian pianist András Schiff to make his major-label debut, what work do you think he picked? Yes, that's right. In 1985, Schiff released his recording of the complete partitas – and followed it with many more Bach recordings over the next few years until he'd released nearly the complete canonical works by 1996. And yes, Schiff's partitas are wonderful.
Who needs another recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations? After all, there have been so many great recordings of the work already – Landowska, Kempff, Gould, Pinnock, and Leonhardt, to name a few – that surely no one needs another recording of the Goldberg. Actually, everyone needs another recording of the Goldbergs provided that it's a recording of a great performance. There's too much in the Goldberg – too much brilliance, too much sorrow, too much humor, too much spirituality – for any one performance, even the best performance, to contain all of it. So long as the performance honors the work's honesty, integrity, and virtuosity, there's always room for another Goldberg on the shelf. This 2001 recording by Andras Schiff belongs on any shelf of great Goldbergs. Schiff has everything it takes – the virtuosity; the integrity; and most importantly, the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual honesty – to turn in a great Goldberg. Indeed, Schiff has already done so in his 1982 Decca recording of the work, a lucid and pellucid performance of tremendous beauty and depth. But as good as the 1982 recording was, the 2001 recording is better.
This 9-disc set includes the mature solo piano concertos in performances by Andras Schiff and the Salzburg Camerata Academica under Sandor Vegh. The piano sound is notably more recessed than in other versions, giving more attention to the orchestral half of the musical dialog. Additionally, the Bosendorfer piano used by Schiff produces a sound that will not be confused with a modern Steinway.
Among recordings of Bach's monumental "Goldberg Variations" on the piano, András Schiff's 1982 set is justly famous. Unlike so many discs that have been issued in tired series designated "legendary recordings" or some other such term, this one fully lives up to the billing with its incredible delineation of Bach's contrapuntal lines. You hear every note, every hidden piece of the inner clockwork of each variation. Sample variation 14, with its trills erupting sharply from each line like spring flowers blooming with freakishly rapid intensity – nobody else has ever given this variation such a glittering quality. Even as Schiff uses the full resources of the piano, with lots of pedal and thoroughly unidiomatic crescendos, he articulates every note Bach wrote. Schiff sets himself technical challenges and then surmounts them. Beginning with the opening Aria he sets a blistering pace – one that may seem too fast, especially in the slow variations, to those raised on Glenn Gould's dreamy readings. But listen to the high-wire act Schiff performs in the canonic variation 21. The intensity is ramped up by the fact that Schiff often barely pauses between variations; one idea follows another, from both Bach and Schiff, with breakneck speed.
This was to be the end of the line for Italian word-setting by Viennese composers: once the confident sentiments that belonged to the poet Metastasio's opera seria felt the chill and threatening wind of Enlightenment and Revolution, their time was up. Even we, for the most part, prefer to remember the German-speaking Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn. So it is good to be reminded of their responses to the Italian muse (usually as part of their craft-learning student work) in this particularly well-cast recital. Central Europe, in the person of Andras Schiff meets Italy, in Cecilia Bartoli, to delightful, often revelatory effect.
First there was rhythm - pulsing, driving, primal rhythm. And a new word in musical terminology: Barbaro. As with sticks on skins, so with hammers on strings. The piano as one of the percussion family, the piano among the percussion family. The first and second concertos were written to be performed that way. But the rhythm had shape and direction, myriad accents, myriad subtleties. An informed primitivism. A Baroque primitivism. Then came the folkloric inflections chipped from the music of time: the crude and misshapen suddenly finding a singing voice. Like the simple melody - perhaps a childhood recollection - that emerges from the dogged rhythm of the First Concerto's second movement. András Schiff plays it like a defining moment - the piano reinvented as a singing instrument. His "parlando" (conversational) style is very much in Bartók's own image. But it's the balance here between the honed and unhoned, the brawn and beauty, the elegance and wit of this astonishing music that make these readings special.
Extraordinary interpretations of Schubert's C major fantasies by András Schiff, alone (on the epochal 'Wanderer-Fantasie') and with violinist Yuuko Shiokawa on the under-acknowledged Fantasy for Violin and Piano D934. Schiff: 'Schubert has such modernity -perhaps his time has only arrived now. Composers of today - like Kurtág, Ligeti, Rihm and Zender - worship Schubert. He was one of the greatest composers ever.'
How poor the piano literature for four hands would be without Schubert! This musical form is indebted to him for its most significant enrichment — ranging from the popular marches to works of virtually symphonic size. The roots of the genre sprang from different soils. Schubert's musical invention was so prolific that often the two hands of a pianist proved to be insufficient, and thus the performance of complicated counterpoint, the countless subsidiary themes and delicate harmonic details demanded two pianists and four hands, resembling the four parts of a string quartet.