I went to the Wigmore Hall with my friend John to see Andras Schiff, the pianist, playing Bach’s English Suites. He is having a season playing much of Bach’s solo keyboard music there, from memory. John has been to a number of the concerts, but on this occasion his partner in this endeavour had been invited to the Christmas celebrations of Bottega Veneta, and so there was a spare ticket.
I had arranged to meet John in a nearby pub. I arrived first and went in. To my horror it was full of Santa Claus. Some Santas were very drunk and were mocking an elf. There was what the packagers of DVDs call moderate violence and language. I was told later that the violence involves throwing sprouts at elves: boiled or fresh according to inclination. Other Santas sat in silence each side of a long table eating their pies. I bought a pint and waited for John outside. The street too was full of Santa. I hoped that there would be none in the Wigmore Hall.
No, it was the usual Wiggie crowd. Bruised by determined and tweeded elbows we made our way to our seats. In the row in front a man had just died but, they said, could not be moved until half time for fear of disrupting the concentration of the artiste.
A nicely-dressed functionary came on stage. Maybe, I thought, he’s come to say that it will be the understudy. No, he told us jocularly not to cough for fear of disrupting the concentration of the artiste.
When we had turned off our mobiles and cleared our throats the artiste himself glided onstage. Mr Schiff’s footwork rivals that of Hercule Poirot; ‘glided’ is the only possible word. Possibly, I mused, ‘Schiff’ (‘ship’ in German, and Mr Schiff hails, against his better judgment, from central Europe) is but a nom de guerre. The effect of gliding was enhanced by a strange jacket, black and buttoned to the collar, resembling nothing so much as that notoriously favoured by the late Mr Nehru, but, as I say, black.
Mr Schiff seated himself, examined his hands quizzically as if astonished, yet again, that such exquisitely sensitive objects could exist in nature, gazed soulfully into where the wings would be if there were wings and not just walls, and started on the English Suites by Bach – from the top, and as I say, from memory.
It was not long before I noticed something very wrong and entirely unexpected. In spite of remembering the notes, and the order in which they were to be played – itself a major undertaking when combined with the other keyboard works by Bach which Mr Schiff had prepared to perform at the Wigmore Hall – he apparently had only the haziest idea of how long each one was expected to last. His left hand trundled away in quite a conscientious way but his right seemed, like that of Dr. Frankenstein’s protégé, to belong to someone else entirely. Complicated bits were rushed, and when they were imminent Mr Schiff would pause for a moment before leaping in. In short, there was no rhythm at all; it was a performance (as Poirot would have put it) embarrassingly clumsy. The many notes constituting Bach’s English Suites unravelled and fell on the ground. Had it not been for the nicely-dressed functionary they might have coughed in embarrassment.
I would not have bothered you with all this if it had been simply a case of a disappointing concert. There have been enough of them, God knows. My problem was that I seemed to be in something of a minority. The audience clapped respectfully if not ecstatically, John was more than enthusiastic and Mr Schiff himself, if the little smile playing from time to time on his lips was anything to go by, thought that he had Bach’s English Suites nailed. I am a fair person and also I hope an analytical one. As great clumps of what in other hands might have been elegant Baroque ornamentation came and went I thought it through. These seemed to me to be the possibilities:
1 Mr Schiff was drunk. That seemed unlikely.
2 I had suffered a minor stroke, which had disrupted my own sense of timing.
3 Mr Schiff meant to play it like that.
Poirot-like I ferreted away and provisionally adopted possibility three. Now certain moral and aesthetic conclusions became possible. Mr Schiff could have played what Bach wrote but apparently thought that it was better to distend it in order to bring out his own ideas of its inner structure. Thelonious Monk after all did just that, to revelatory effect. With Monk, however, the rhythm remained reliable so you could feel the disintegration and reassembly of the tune. With Mr Schiff his oompah left hand was just not enough and it all fell apart.
With Bach, I reflected, you need momentum and humour. Here the momentum went out of the window with the rhythm. As to the humour, Mr Schiff clearly recognised that there were playful passages. He put on a Mr Bean expression for them. The trouble is that he did not actually make them playful.
At half time I explained all this to John. He was so angry with me that he went and hid in the lavatory. The nicely-dressed functionary removed the dead person from the row in front and they resold the seat for the second half at a reduced price. A new tweeded man arrived shortly afterwards, glaring around him and flexing his elbows.
The interval over, Mr Schiff glided back. Another extraordinary thing happened. It started to work. He played Bach’s music and it made sense. There were still some queasily approximate appoggiaturas but by and large it was all quite listenable, in a way that the first half hadn’t been at all. This raised a fourth possibility:
4 Mr Schiff had a nightmare first half but no one much noticed and after a cup of strong coffee it all came good.
Who knows? When we left Santa was still on the street. They had joined forces with the remainder of the Christmas celebrations of Bottega Veneta. As a conga they weaved along Wigmore Street clutching each other’s waists (rough red tunics and little black numbers from Prada alike) and singing the Bottega Veneta house song:
Will you need a bag with that?
Will you need a bag with that?