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Archive for November, 2012

András Schiff

András Schiff

András Schiff

The usher directing us to our seats at Chicago’s Symphony Center yesterday afternoon told us that we were in for a long afternoon. “Three hours,” she warned ominously, as if worried that we lacked the necessary stamina. Not everyone survived. Our neighbours had a dinner engagement at six, so they only lasted until F-minor in András Schiff’s performance of the second volume of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and from the gentle snoring I could hear a few rows back, some gave up earlier than that. 

Schiff cuts a mildly eccentric figure. He exchanged the three-piece suit with watch chain that he wore at his last Chicago recital for a plain black tunic, with overlong flared sleeves, looking like a Chinese apothecary when he bowed with tightly clasped hands. At the end of the first half, he stood up and briefly bowed into the piano as if offering a silent prayer before turning to the audience, but I suspect that he was really stretching his back after more than an hour sitting on the bench; he looked as if he had aged twenty years as he walked stiffly off the stage. If he was fatigued, it never showed in his playing, which was as sprightly and effortless at the end as when he first started..

To some extent, this eccentricity extends to his playing but it is always rooted in artistic conviction. His recording of both volumes of the Well Tempered Clavier, which was only released about a month ago, has attracted a lot of attention because of his decision to forego the use of a sustaining pedal. His argument is that none of the instruments that Bach played had a sustaining pedal, so it should be unnecessary on a Steinway. He was similarly dogmatic in his Beethoven recordings, insisting on observing all of the composer’s pedal markings as written, dismissing arguments that they can’t work on a modern piano.

I can confirm that he spent the entire recital with his feet planted firmly on the floor. I was worried that the resulting playing would be too dry, reminiscent of Glenn Gould’s more sterile recordings. But Schiff is too fine a pianist for that, inventing a whole new expressive vocabulary to compensate for the lost sonorities. Evidently, he doesn’t need the pedal to make the piano sing with the most seamless legato phrasing, but he also produced an extraordinary variety of non legato textures, with a seemingly infinite range of attacks and note lengths, creating new sounds to replace the old. He also resorted to the occasional subterfuge, rhythmically distorting phrases to disguise awkward chordal transitions, but this rhythmic freedom was then used to generate new musical insights. For example, many of the fugues had a delightful rhythmic lilt to them, which was probably inspired by the need for his hands to dance lightly over the keys without a pedal to smooth out the jumps. More often than not, Schiff was able to transform the self-imposed technical limitations into a fresh new artistic vision.

I think Bach would have been shocked to think that anyone would play the whole volume in a single sitting. Apparently, he never intended them for public performance at all, so there are no obvious programmatic links between the pieces. The end of the first half builds to a kind of climax from the gently ruminative E-major prelude to the rhythmically insistent F-minor fugue, and the final B-minor fugue provides a decisive conclusion, but there are long periods that require the most intense concentration if you don’t want to miss anything. I’m sure passages of the greatest sublimity washed over me from time to time, but this is soul-cleansing music that is worth the effort.

We owe a great debt to Schiff’s love of Bach. In the seventies when his career started, the period instrument movement was beginning to sweep away the nineteenth century cobwebs that had coated baroque performance, and performances of Bach on the modern piano could well have been consigned to history. Brendel produced some memorable performances that combined textural clarity with rhetorical expressiveness, but he only played a very limited number of pieces, too few to establish a school of playing. I don’t know if they acknowledge his inspiration, but I somehow doubt that we would have so many excellent Bach pianists today, such as Angela Hewitt, Murray Perahia, or Piotr Anderszewski, if Schiff hadn’t championed the expressive power of the modern piano in this music over the last forty years or so. Although, for the sake of his back, he should probably limit the number of these three hour marathons.

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