András Schiff at Wigmore Hall review – joy and solace

Fiona Maddocks
·2 min read

Declaring, in his opening comments, that Wigmore Hall is his favourite venue and Bach the greatest of all composers, the Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff bewitched us with a recital so engrossing that the only thing to do at the end was go back to the beginning and start again. To date I’ve listened four times, and not because I couldn’t find anything else to do. If one shaft of light can penetrate our pandemic darkness, having Schiff playing Bach freely available in the palm of your hand must be a contender. At the time of writing, the lights are temporarily out in Wigmore Hall: having battled every imaginable circumstance since March, on Tuesday its director, John Gilhooly, paused proceedings for now, not least for the safety of the musicians in this acute period of the virus.

Schiff’s live stream recital is still available: listen, watch, find joy and solace. He could have relied on his estimable presenter, fellow pianist Iain Burnside, but was entirely at ease providing his own laconic commentary, punctuated with recondite humour that may or may not have been Hungarian. The programme, opening with the youthful Capriccio “on the departure of a beloved brother”, BWV 992, managed to encapsulate the range of Bach’s career in various German cities. Yet Bach was above all a European, Schiff emphasised, absorbing musical traditions from France, Italy, Scotland, Ireland and more. Accordingly, the concert culminated in the jubilant Italian Concerto and the huge Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, its 11 movements freely roving between majestic and intimate and ending with a mysterious section entitled “Echo”.

Bach can be played in a multitude of ways, countless as stars in a constellation. Schiff somehow makes his approach right: fresh, muscular, transparent. The title of his memoir, published last year, is a key to his thinking: Music Comes Out of Silence – a simple observation, which could scarcely be more timely or profound.