The three-hour Celebrity Series program András Schiff offered at Jordan Hall Friday evening went from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime. His theme was variations, as he opened with Bach’s inexhaustible “Goldberg Variations” and followed that with Beethoven’s kaleidoscopic “Diabelli Variations.” Schiff is not an effusive pianist; he adheres to the letter of the score, without overt emotion in his phrasing, and he’s not to every taste. But if you paid close attention Friday, you could detect an uncompromising intelligence at work.
His “Goldbergs” did suggest a set of mathematical proofs. He took every repeat, adding some ornamentation the second time around. He played the Aria and nearly all of the 30 variations at the same medium-fast tempo, never once touching the pedals. His tone is starry rather than sunny, with few nuances of light and shadow. There’s an old-fashioned aspect to his pianism; I suspect we would have heard more variety, in both the Bach and the Beethoven, on a drier, darker, more intimate instrument than the modern Steinway.
The Aria was nervous and shapeless, and Number 13, usually an opportunity for reflection, was stiff. He didn’t relax into the three G-minor variations, either: Number 15 created a hypnotic melancholy; Number 21 stormed and ranted; Number 25, the famous “Black Pearl,” was painful rather than sad.
But the performance, at 75 minutes, was just measured enough to let Bach dance. Hummingbirds darted through Number 5; toy soldiers marched to Numbers 9 and 22; Number 19 was a music-box minuet; butterflies flitted over a sarabande in Number 26. He was preternaturally light and articulate in the skipping figurations of Number 29, and then he turned the Quodlibet, with its two folk songs, into party time. The repetition of the Aria should be different, and it was, marginally more weighted.
Beethoven’s 33 variations on Anton Diabelli’s banal waltz embrace the human condition, mostly in its comic aspect. Pompous marches go nowhere, horsemen gallop into dead ends, hunters lose sight of their packs, trumpets call for attention and then discover they have nothing to say. Even the borrowing of Leporello’s “Notte e giorno faticar,” the aria that opens Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” leads to nothing. Schiff conveyed all this, sometimes banging for effect, but he also gave us the glimpses of nobility, like Number 24’s chiming Fughetta. At the end, when the waltz turns into a minuet, he became almost courtly.
What followed was extraordinary. One could hardly have expected an encore after 130 minutes of music, but Schiff, without announcement, launched into the 17-minute final movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111. A few minutes into this heartstopping music, a loud cough caused him to break off and lecture the offender. That didn’t stop the coughing; the performance, however, was transcendent.