“And then I just thought, why not put the two together?”
This casual account of decision making, an explanation without an explanation, was offered by pianist András Schiff during a recent conversation. He was referring to two pillars of the piano repertoire: Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. They are the two greatest sets of variations for keyboard, and because of their complexity and their length — the Bach anywhere from 40 to 80 minutes, the Beethoven around an hour — each tends to dwarf whatever else joins it on a program.
But Schiff, whose depth of experience with both composers is nearly unrivaled among performers today, has done something startling. He has brought them together on the same program, part of his two-season Bach Project. The pairing makes for a mammoth program he is playing in only a few cities, Boston among them. (This Friday’s Jordan Hall performance is sold out.)
“Of course it’s a gigantic program,” he said by phone from Chapel Hill, N.C. “But it makes perfect sense.” While no conclusive proof exists that Beethoven knew the Goldberg Variations, there is a network of connections between the two, none more significant than the sheer scope and complexity of the works. Beethoven wrote variations throughout his career, in sonatas, quartets, and symphonies, as well as standalone piano works. “He used variation form like a fish in water,” Schiff said. “But he never attempted anything on this scale. And I think he did it because of the Bachian challenge.”
Schiff has played the Goldberg Variations throughout his career and recorded them twice. And for decades he has played all 32 Beethoven sonatas. But the Diabelli Variations — a late masterpiece inspired by a rather banal waltz theme from the Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli — Schiff learned only a few years ago.
The delay was necessary, he explained, because while each sonata has a single character — playful, tempestuous, melancholy — the Diabellis are a kind of summa of his art. “His whole personality and all the different sides of his character [are there]. I would call it his most Shakespearean creation. Only Shakespeare can do this: to have the dramatic, the lyrical, and the comic united.”
Schiff’s recording of the Beethoven is as atypical as his programming. In the past he has been uninterested in historical instruments, in part, the result of an unhappy experience in the 1970s recording on Beethoven’s own piano. Recently, though, Schiff acquired a fortepiano, made by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820, exactly the time Beethoven was writing the Diabellis. It made him an enthusiastic convert.
Beethoven ‘used variation form like a fish in water. But he never attempted anything on this scale. And I think he did it because of the Bachian challenge.’
“It has very distinct registers,” Schiff said of the instrument. “It’s not an even sound. People today are so proud of a Steinway piano that is absolutely even from top to bottom. But that’s not how Beethoven or Schubert composed. They wrote for these instruments which have registers, different tonal qualities in top, middle, and bass.”
Around the same time, Schiff heard a 1921 Bechstein piano, on which the German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus used to give recitals. Its sound was completely different from the cool precision of a Steinway, our ideal for how a modern piano should sound. The Bechstein was warmer and had a softer edge, reminding him of the piano tone in the Beethoven and Schubert recordings of the great Artur Schnabel.
Schiff was so excited by his discoveries that he proposed to his label, ECM, recording the Diabellis twice — once on the fortepiano, once on the Bechstein. To fill out the 2-CD set, he included two other late Beethoven works: the last piano sonata, Op. 111, played on the Bechstein piano, and the Bagatelles, Op.126, played on the fortepiano. The results offer at least a mild shock: Both instruments make the Diabellis sound intimate and almost delicate in a piece known for brash extroversion.
“I want this intimacy,” Schiff said. “I think that this ‘fighting Beethoven’ is almost a cliché. . . . That’s how people like to see him. But I think that the majority of this composition is very intimate and very inward-looking. And very soft.”
Schiff’s broader polemical point is a dissatisfaction with what he called “the globalization of piano music. I would really like to challenge the listening public to be more curious. Because they have become very complacent, accepting the fact that, yes, with the Steinway piano, music will be listened to on a Steinway regardless of the composer or the composition.”
Asked what he was playing on his current tour, Schiff admitted that he was playing a Steinway at each concert.
“Well, look, one has to be pragmatic,” he said. “I cannot carry those instruments with me everywhere.” But, he added, “after these experiences of having played those instruments I do approach a Steinway differently, and I try to reach different sonorities on it.”
Just before the end of a conversation, Schiff mused about the Pilgrim’s Progress his program creates. He pointed to the endings of both works: the Bach with the repeat of the aria which begins the piece, the Beethoven with a graceful minuet that distantly recalls its waltz theme.
“We have, as human beings, a longing for a homecoming experience. We want to wander and we travel a lot, but we like to return home. And both of these works, they give you this sensation. After so much adventure and so much turbulence, what we really look for is peace. And these works, they give it to us.”