The Late Night Bach Prom series really seems to have caught the imagination of the public this year. Alina Ibragimova’s solo violin Bach and the late night choral Bach were both very well attended, but for Sir András Schiff’s Goldberg Variations, the Royal Albert Hall was really full – I’ve never seen the arena standing so full for a classical late night Prom – and there was a palpable buzz in the hall on this balmy Saturday evening. One would think that the venue is hardly ideal for the most intimate of Bach’s works, the universality of Bach’s music seem to triumph even in the most unlikely of spaces.

Sir András Schiff © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir András Schiff
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

I don’t know what Sir András thought when he came out onto the stage and saw this amazing crowd, but he looked cool and calm, even nonchalant. He sat down at his Steinway “Fabbrini” piano and without any fuss, he calmly embarked on the storytelling of this keyboard masterpiece that he knows so well – possibly better than any other living pianist at the moment. Unsurprisingly it was an exemplary performance – it had clarity, fluency, crispness of tone, perfect pacing, sense of structure, beautifully executed trills and other ornamentation, and hardly a note out of place. Everything was just so, and it was an impressive performance on all levels.

Tempi were generally quite swift, and within each variation too, he rarely lingered, except at the end of a group of variations (Bach gives very few tempo indications in the score). Schiff’s choice of tempi probably derives partly from his decision not to use the sustaining pedal at all. As he has recently said in an article for The Guardian: “In recent years, I have set out to prove that I could play Bach without touching the pedal, and it is possible. After all, the sustaining pedal was not available to Bach on any of his instruments.” As a result, he relies a lot of his expression on touch, articulation and phrasing, and in that sense, I felt that his approach is close in spirit to a performance on a harpsichord.

Schiff vividly brought out the character of each variation: the beautiful melismatic line in Variation 13, the fast and furious Variation 14 where the two hands cross and try to catch each other (one almost loses sense of the metre), the solemn grandeur of the French overture in Variation 16 and the poignancy of the mesmerizing minor Variation 25. The final Quodlibet also had an appropriately secular and buoyant mood.

What I slightly missed was a sense of playfulness in some of the lighter movements, but this is a minor point in the larger scheme of things. Moreover, the clarity Schiff achieves in the “learned” variations such as canons (every third variation is a canon) and fugues is really unparalleled. But there was plenty of virtuosity too, for example in the crossing hands in Variation 5 and fast triplet runs in Variation 20. Schiff played all the indicated repeats in the variations, mostly straightforwardly without overt embellishment, but there were a couple of interesting deviations.

In Variation 7 (“al tempo di Giga”) with its lilting dotted rhythms, Schiff played it staccato first time, and in the repeats more legato. In Variation 18, in the repeats he played the whole thing an octave lower, perhaps imitating the 16-foot register on a harpsichord, and at the return of the Aria at the end, he played the repeat of the first section without the ornamentation. I wonder if he had planned these things or they were improvisatory? As I said, the performance was near-perfection and it felt like Schiff presented the work as a highly polished product, like a perfectly carved Greek statue. His style is not so much that he takes us on a journey of discovery, but that he presented his discovery to us. Having lived with the Goldberg Variations (and other Bach keyboard works too) for so long, the depth of his understanding of Bach’s endlessly imaginative compositional language is just so authoritative that we could only listen in awe to his magnificent interpretation.