A memorable afternoon spent with J.S. Bach and András Schiff

Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 1:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Andras Schiff performed Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

András Schiff recorded a well-received complete set of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for Decca in the 1980s. Now 59, the Austrian pianist has set down another set of the 48 preludes and fugues for ECM, and on his current North American tour he is revisiting those works.

Schiff’s tour took him to Symphony Center Sunday afternoon. While he offered the complete WTC in New York in two installments, Chicago is only getting Book II. Even that is a good chunk of Bach with Sunday’s recital spanning nearly three hours with intermission.

Although Schiff performs Bach on a modern Steinway grand, he adheres to a fairly stringent period style, avoiding wide dynamic contrasts. He also entirely eschews use of the pedals, and the pianist kept both feet flat on the ground throughout the entire afternoon.

Schiff is more a master craftsman than a poet at the keyboard and others, such as Murray Perahia and the celebrated Edwin Fischer—the first pianist to record the complete WTC—have brought more expressive depth and nuanced phrasing to Bach on the modern grand while still largely keeping within stylistic parameters.

Yet Schiff’s playing of Book II of the WTC brought its own rewards, with poised, polished playing that was a model of unerring taste. It was also technically immaculate without a single dropped note throughout nearly three hours, an astounding achievement in such technically demanding music as this.

The opening C major prelude and fugue felt a bit rigid and mechanical and one settled in for a rather long and pedantic afternoon. Yet Schiff immediately thereafter seemed to relax and, within his self-imposed limits, brought a wide expressive profile and varird approach to these 24 rich and wide-ranging preludes and fugues.

Schiff drew out a searching expression in the C minor fugue and found a gentle confiding air in the prelude in C-sharp major. He explored a halting unsettled sense in the prelude in C-sharp minor (here indulging in a more varied dynamic palette) and drew out the interior melancholy of the prelude in F-sharp minor and the fugue in G-sharp minor with a sense of inevitability.  Schiff also gently pointed up contrasts as in the playful approach to the prelude in D major and the somber reflection of the ensuing fugue.

Also notable were the concentrated austerity of the F minor fugue, and the cooling balm of the prelude in E major that followed. The pointillist expressive poise of the prelude in F minor almost seemed to point forward to Schubert.

There was ample bravura, as well in the E major fugue, E minor prelude and B-flat minor prelude. In the fugues throughout the afternoon, Schiff brought pinpoint precision to the multiple voicings, with even the knottiest of Bach’s contrapuntal thickets emerging with extraordinary clarity.

A few timid souls bailed at intermission, but most of the large audience listened with rapt concentration, a few rude hackers and key janglers apart. Schiff, amazingly, rewarded those in attendance with an encore, going all the way back to the opening prelude and fugue in C major of Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, here performed with a flowing tenderness and gossamer lightness that was a highlight of a memorable afternoon spent with Messrs. Bach and Schiff.

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