András Schiff, Piano: Bach, Inventions and Sinfonias

Schiff Bach Inventions

For those who want to take the plunge into piano playing’s more tepid waters, an András Schiff disc is the ideal diving board. From Schubert to Haydn to Mozart, Schiff treats the music of all composers he plays as elevator music. His discography represents a compilation of bedtime tunes that could transport all but the most irremediable of night owls off to the sandman’s land in the time it took Dorothy to tap together her ruby slippers. Perhaps nowhere is Schiff’s sterile approach more celebrated than in Bach, whose music seems to attract more mediocre keyboardists than a porch light lures moths. What people see in this nosehair-tickling approach to Bach’s rhythmically robust, polyphonically complex compositions will, I’m afraid, forever escape me.

These renditions of the inventions and sinfonias boast nary an individual idea or turn of phrase. To be sure, though, there’s lots of smirking self-styling. With Schiff, you’ve come to the right place to hear insistent, heaving hesitations (second invention); twaddly, prissy staccati (third sinfonia); rushed, tinkly passagework (fourteenth invention); and awkward, anachronistic hand breakings (ninth sinfonia)—in short, his superimposition of tawdry ideas on the music to pander to our look-at-how-original-I-am times. Schiff has become a poster pianist for an age infected by musicological bloviating—an epidemic of windbag posturing inflicted on the world by the so-called historically informed.

Schiff and his groupies just don’t seem to realize that his jejeune touches and flaccid dynamics can’t create the illusion that he has something to say. Listening to his bland tone in selection after selection, I felt like a famished dog stumbling around a graveyard, hoping to find some meat on the bones strewn about me. Alas, I’m trapped, starving. And no light can be seen beyond the faceless mass of tombstones, save the sickeningly green glow that surrounds Schiff’s bilious ornaments and touches in such pieces as the third invention or the fifth sinfonia.

Sometimes I wonder whether such recordings are an indication that Bach playing on the piano has become a lost cause. Sorry to say, you can probably do worse with Bach than Schiff—by listening to Simone Dinerstein or Angela Hewitt, for example—two hacks who are now, mirabile dictu, well on their way to becoming forgotten hags. Yes, Schiff may not be quite as crude; his is just cautious, average playing that never pumps the heart or stirs the brain. Even Kissin and Lang Lang have a stronger effect on me: at least they make me laugh.


Joe’s Grade: C      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016