ANDRAS SCHIFF: PIONEER OF BACH ON THE PIANO
Andras Schiff, piano: Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, Book I, Chan Centre, October 5, 2012
All great pianists have started their training by playing Bach on the piano and often turn back to it when they get older. Pianists as diverse as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich, and Murray Perahia have all left distinguished recordings of Bach, even though their interests were principally elsewhere. Sviatoslav Richter’s last public concerts often featured a full half concert of Bach. Such was his devotion that he would have all audience lights turned off, and one would see only the dim figure of this artist in the shadow of his piano light playing in communion with the composer’s spirit. One believed he could play on forever!
But the idea of playing Bach on the piano is fundamentally controversial, since the piano was not an instrument of Bach’s day. Since the 1950’s, ‘authenticists’ have always defended the harpsichord as the right keyboard choice, and the authentic movement has, if anything, got stronger over the years. Few conductors would play Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven with a full 80-piece orchestra anymore and many specialists would like to see even these composer’s keyboard works played only on the ‘fortepiano’ of the period, not the concert grand. Yet Bach on the concert grand has not only survived, but actually taken off in recent years. One must cite the role of Canadian Angela Hewitt as a catalyst in making this happen.
After 1960, the only pianist who consistently pushed pianistic Bach into public attention was the even more famous Canadian, Glenn Gould, who left a rich legacy of Bach recordings for Sony. He is now a revered icon (Gramophone has just issued a long article in his memory); then, he was viewed as more of a wayward genius. His interpretations brought great joy to his admirers but outright terror to others. And, virtually no pianists followed his lead. Harpsicordists Gustav Leonhardt and George Malcolm, and later Trevor Pinnock, Kenneth Gilbert and Ton Koopman led the Bach keyboard charge forward. It was then only in the mid-1980’s that the young Hungarian pianist, Andras Schiff, successfully led us back to the piano. The set of Bach keyboard works that Schiff recorded for Decca in this period – to universal acclaim --opened the door for young pianists to follow. This was indeed the turning point, and everyone did follow.
To have Andras Schiff standing on stage at the Chan Centre would be truly an honour, even if he did not play a note. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I has always been a tour de force for him, even from the early days. What we saw from him on this evening however was something richer and deeper still. Perhaps because the shackles of having to justify Bach on the piano have now withered away, there is no doubt that Schiff’s playing was more directly communicative, concentrated, and indeed more commanding than previously. While he has always had supreme technical abilities, previously there was perhaps a touch of prettiness or soft-centeredness in his playing, now, we find him probing and uncompromisingly direct. Before, perhaps a trace of aloofness; now, we find full involvement in the work from beginning to end. So fully does he understand every small corner of each of these 24 preludes and fugues that he can bring them all together into one continuous creative flow. Seeing this happening is simply ‘life giving’!
From the very opening prelude, Schiff’s ease of delivery and awareness of beauty were stunning. But, more important, one could feel the music’s spirit and sense of wonder too. So often in the early pieces, I noticed the searching, inquisitive quality of the playing. Yet the contrapuntal line was always clear and firm, nothing was hurried, the preludes and fugues simply unfolded as they came one after another. While the preludes were treated as more ‘private’ expression -- often innocently light and pointed, other times almost mysterious -- the fugues were given full ‘public’ presentation: invariably decisive and commanding, sometimes steady and noble, sometimes fused with an almost manic drive, and other times glowing with the exalted grandeur one finds in Bach’s organ fugues. Always, one could see the pianist’s mind at work, the sheer conviction of his musical decisions and his patience in balancing all the variety that this long journey offers.
A truly memorable experience and so pleasing to see the Chan Centre almost sold out for it. It always does more for the soul to witness greatness with the many than with the few.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012