As a young pianist, András Schiff earned wide esteem for his 1980s recordings of the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach; in recent years, as part of his long-term relationship with ECM, he has gone back to Bach as a sage veteran, earning more acclaim for his New Series recordings of the Goldberg Variations (2003) and the six Partitas (2009). Now, using his own Steinway, Schiff turns his focus to the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier, making studio recordings in Lugano of both books for this 4-CD set.
An iconic inspiration for composers from Mozart and Beethoven to Chopin and Brahms and beyond, The Well-Tempered Clavier has long been considered the Old Testament of the keyboard literature (with Beethoven's piano sonatas as the New Testament). In his liner notes, Paul Griffiths underscores the suitability of Bach's timeless keyboard work for the modern piano: "Bach's inquiry into so many nuances, of touch, of interplay between hands and between contrapuntal lines, of character and of expressivity, has helped form keyboard technique as we know it, and his music belongs to the instrument of Beethoven, of Chopin, of Debussy, of Kurtág - especially when that instrument is played with the mastery and sensitivity of Schiff in these performances (...) Noteworthy is his floated melody and his rhythmic sense - his realization that so much of Bach's music is song or dance. Grandeur and intimacy are also here. Wit, too."
In the introduction to his ECM release of Bach's Partitas, Schiff laid out his motivation for revisiting music he first recorded two decades before: "Great music is far greater than its performers. We try our entire lives to unveil its secrets and to convey its unique message. Even if we never quite reach the imaginary goal, our many performances give us experience and knowledge that were hidden from us years ago. We form a better understanding of its structure and inner workings. Horizons broaden before our eyes."
"Mr. Schiff is, in Bach, a phenomenon. He doesn't so much perform it as emit, breathe it." - New York Times
Personnel: András Schiff (piano)
The two books of preludes and fugues that make up Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier – one complementary pair in every key of the chromatic scale twice over, 48 in total – is one of the greatest achievements in the keyboard repertory.
Debate still rages about exactly which instrument, or instruments, Bach intended them to be played on – clavichord, harpsichord, organ, possibly even an early prototype piano.
But one thing is certain: the composer could never have imagined these quintessentially Baroque works on a modern concert grand.
Yet, for at least a century, Bach's 48 has been the Everest which all great pianists aspire to climb, and many have done so with utterly convincing and profoundly eloquent results.
One such is Hungary-born British pianist András Schiff, whose previous recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier for Decca in the 1980s won many admirers, but who now turns to them again with the advantage of three decades' more experience and maturity.
In his intelligently argued essay accompanying this ECM album, Schiff poses the questions, “Is it permitted to play Bach on an instrument that he couldn't have known? If it isn't, whose permission do we need to ask?”, concluding that the bottom line for all modern Bach performance is simply “good taste”.
This is something that Schiff's latest recording demonstrates in abundance. Nothing is overstated or obtrusive, the music treated with utmost respect.
In the years since his previous version, Schiff has ironed out, or, rather, seamlessly integrated his more contrived idiosyncrasies, resulting in a gloriously homogeneous, completely right-feeling account.
The often-complex multi-layered textures are rendered with crystal clarity, not just because Schiff has determined largely to eschew the sustaining pedal – overused prop of many pianists, a device not yet invented in Bach's time – but also because of his unique brand of restrained pianism and timeless stylistic manner.
For more flamboyant and unashamedly pianistic – but equally valid – versions, we have the likes of Samuel Feinberg's vintage 1959 account, while harpsichord enthusiasts should investigate Christine Schornsheim's 2011 version on Capricco, played on a 1624 Ruckers instrument such as Bach might have known.
Ultimately, Schiff transcends all questions of instrumentation, leaving us with the wonderful impression that we are listening to Bach, pure and simple.
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