Explorer Schiff, Under the Surface of Bach’s WTC

United StatesUnited States Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: András Schiff (piano), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 7.10.2012 (HS)

Pianist András Schiff can make Bach exhilarating not by wrenching the music into any new or startling directions, but by burrowing deep into its soul. His approach aims for clarity, purity and grace, a desire to make the music dance gently and glow from within. When all the pieces fall into place, as they did on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall Sunday afternoon, an impeccable sense of pace and pinpoint articulation lets it all unfurl with a welcome inevitability.

All that was in evidence as the pianist began his Bach Project, in which he plays both books of the The Well-Tempered Clavier in the coming month here in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, with additional performances of one book or the other in Seattle, Chicago, Washington, and Vancouver. He’s also playing two Bach keyboard concertos (and conducting them) plus some Mendelssohn in San Francisco. Next spring he focuses on the English Suites and French Suites in California and New York (plus an orchestral concert at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall).

With Book I in San Francisco, the gently rippling arpeggios of the first prelude emerged quietly, serene on the surface but bubbling with urgency underneath. The familiar fugue followed in the same vein, another harbinger of his approach, which seemed to underline any melodic and rhythmic relationships between the preludes and their corresponding fugues.

Schiff famously avoids using pedal when he plays Bach, the better (he believes) to emulate the character of the keyboard instruments Bach himself would have known. The clavichord, harpsichord and various hybrids of his day had no means of sustaining the sound, and the harpsichord could not make dynamic inflections within a phrase.

Playing this way on a modern piano creates a sense of clarity that could be smeared by using the sustain pedal. The tradeoffs became obvious as the music unfolded in this performance. Bach’s melodies often emulate singing legato, and though with no pedal they lose some of that “tying-together,” Schiff’s genius makes them feel united with subtle shades of softness and loudness. In fact, Schiff’s playing made a strong case that the expressiveness of Bach’s music can be better articulated on a modern piano, which can vary dynamics within a phrase – something a harpsichord cannot.

These nuances were most strongly felt in emotionally rich pieces such as the prelude to No. 22 in B-flat minor, with its slow repeated rhythms that gain in intensity as they move with persistence. Subtleties also colored the fugues, from the feather-light touch that created deft balances in No. 3 in C-sharp minor, the finesse and clarity of the double fugue in No. 18 in G-sharp minor, or in the rich breadth of the big finish in No. 22.

These nuances helped sprinkle fairy dust on the fleet coloratura in the Prelude No. 6 in D minor, and achieved a captivating lilt in the prelude of No. 19 in A minor, a pastoral siciliana.

In its quiet fervor, the more expansive final prelude and fugue, No. 24 in B minor, recalls the B minor Mass. Schiff got it exactly right: majestic without being grandiose, and ending by suggesting, rather than imposing, a sense of finality.

Harvey Steiman