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Andras Schiff chooses Bach before breakfast
Sir Andras Schiff is one of the world's great pianists but he still sits down every morning to play one of Bach's preludes and fugues before breakfast. He calls it "taking care of your inner hygiene". This was the spirit of this exemplary concert – the first visit by Schiff to Melbourne in twenty years. The focus on the inner spirit meant that it did not feel like a public concert. Instead, we felt we had a special pass to listen in as one of the world's great musicians explored his own musical imagination.
There was nothing showy or dramatic in the performance itself. All the pieces were contemplative, playful and conversational and all played entirely from memory. Schiff was in communion with the composers, exploring his understanding of the limits of normal communication or, as he said in his charming introduction, "Music starts where words stop".
The concert centred around the genius of JS Bach who Schiff reveres. It started with Mendelssohn one of the great lyricists of the romantic era who bound his imagination within a tightly knit classical framework. His significance to the work of Bach was in his championing of Bach's works at a time when it was overlooked. He restored JS Bach to his proper place in pantheon, putting on the first performance of the St Matthew Passion for over 100 years in 1829. In this concert, we heard Mendelssohn's Fantasy in F-sharp minor from 1833, a dramatic piece performed with references to the Scottish highlands and the battles of the tartans reflected in the title 'Sonate Ecossaise'.
Beethoven's Sonata No 24 in F-sharp major was not the turbulent, passionate, monumental piano music we associate with the standard Beethoven repertoire. It was a tender, delicate piece written, it seems, as a love offering to Josephine Brunsvik who he elsewhere described as his "only beloved". Schiff played it as if the young girl was in the room alongside us.
Brahms dominated the last section of the first half and the opening of the second half of the concert. This showed both composer and performer in their most contemplative - questioning and discussing the full range of emotions in a series of short episodic discursions. Schiff himself warned us that a diet of too much Brahms could injure your health, as he tended to the depressive. Brahms himself acknowledged that these were deeply personal pieces and that "even one listener was too many"! But here we had just the right balance. Issues and concerns were introduced and explored with frankness – sometimes brooding and sometimes whimsy - but never held for too long that we lost interest.
JS Bach – the last item on the program – is clearly Schiff's major love. His English Suite no 6 in D-minor is a set of eight inter-linked dance tunes written for Price Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen at the same time as his Brandenburg Concertos. In turn, delightful, elegant, playful and stately.
In many ways, the highlight of the evening was the unexpected and repeated encores that the evidently shy and introverted Sir Andras gave us as a personal leaving gift. Faced by repeated and continuing applause he returned bashfully to bow and smile and then retreat to the safety of the stage door, only to be drawn back again by the repeated cheers. Eventually, he relented and sat down to play again. The first encore was an early piece by the eighteen years old JS Bach. It described the mixed feeling of the Bach family when faced by the departure of JS Bach's brother on the long trip to Sweden alone. His second encore was Bach's Italian Concerto in F Major.
The audience had obviously won his affection. We were rewarded with two more encores - finishing with two of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words – an apt and fitting end to a marvellous example of the power of music to speak louder than words.