András Schiff and the Staatskapelle Berlin offer the treat of hearing Bach on modern instruments

GermanyGermany Bach: Claudia Stein (flute), Staatskapelle Berlin, András Schiff (piano, conductor). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 6.12.2019. (MB)

András Schiff (c) Nadia F. Romanini

Bach – Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor, BWV 1067; Piano Concerto No.3 in D major, BWV 1054; Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major, BWV 1068; Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, BWV 1052

Celebrating its 450th anniversary next year, the Staatskapelle Berlin traces its proud history long before Bach: be that its ‘own’, Carl Philipp Emanuel, his father, Johann Sebastian — ‘Gentlemen, old Bach is here!’ — or indeed any family member whom we know as a composer. It is a sad state of affairs to report that, on the similar brink of another anniversary, the 70th of the great Bach year of 1950, in whose wake Theodor Adorno wrote his coruscating denunciation of authenticist ideology, we still live so much in its baleful shadow that a concert from this ancient orchestra in which it performs only relatively ‘alte Musik’ should remain so remarkable a thing. Whatever reservations I may have felt, then, concerning András Schiff’s direction of this wonderful orchestra — a few, alongside many positive observations — I remain grateful indeed for the experience, for the reminder that it is still just about possible to hear Bach played by a modern orchestra without compelling its players to sound like an end-of-pier band, or indeed simply to hear Bach from a modern orchestra at all. To see Daniel Barenboim in the Pierre Boulez Saal audience, moreover, was encouraging; dare we hope for some more Bach from him, whether as pianist, conductor, or both?

For the B minor Orchestral Suite, with Claudia Stein as the excellent flute soloist, Schiff, conducting rather than directing from the keyboard, called on a very small string orchestra ( plus harpsichord (Schaghajegh Nosrati). The opening to the Overture, like its counterpart in the D major Suite later on, sounded clipped and inhibited. The main body of the movement came as a significant relief: not only a sensible tempo, so rare nowadays in this music, but with no attempt to inflict weird, egotistical mannerisms upon it. Rhythms were nicely sprung. Crucially, that sense of line strangely lacking earlier on was present throughout. It was initially not clear to me that Schiff’s hand-waving had much bearing on the excellent playing, other than setting the parameters within which it would operate, but entries were well pointed, so perhaps it did after all. The Rondeau and Sarabande proved graceful, without some effete, allegedly French idea of ‘grace’ becoming an end in itself. Once again, the lack of breakneck, attention-seeking tempo was greatly appreciated, also enabling the first Bourrée to come as a vigorous contrast that yet did not neglect its fundamental musical worth. The second, played only by soloists and with darker tone, offered a more relaxed foil. The martial qualities of Polonaise rhythm were communicated, yet again without ‘style’ being taken for idea. Stein’s playing in particular highlighted rhythm in revealing, generative fashion. A further solo foil, this time from flute and continuo, proved idiomatically and emotionally refreshing in the Double. A courtly Menuett led to a Badinerie that was swift without taking speed to fashionable excess, Stein’s agile musicianship matched by a highly responsive orchestra.

Moving to the relative major, a slightly augmented string section ( accompanied Schiff in the D major Concerto, BWV 1054, directed — without harpsichord — from the piano. The first movement’s opening was bright and clear. Just when I was longing for greater variegation of piano tone, Schiff offered some, though I could not help but wish we had heard a little more in that respect. Such is his way, however, as is his refusal to use the sustaining pedal; we should all be wary of claims that there is only one way. Light piano ornamentation proved stylish and did not obscure the fundamentals. An eminently musical account of the slow movement permitted depth to come from the notes, as opposed to being something applied to them. Command of the long line was here crucial — and unfailing. Some may well have found Schiff’s tempo for the final movement too slow; it is, after all, marked ‘Presto’. For me, his relatively unhurried approach had much to be said for it, permitting the music to speak, with no fashionable sense of harrying it.

The larger string band was retained for the second half, joined of course by two oboes, three trumpets, kettledrums, and harpsichord for the D major Orchestral Suite, not least in the main body of the first movement. It was taken fast, but far from unreasonably so: music and players could take it. What cultivated string-playing we heard, trumpets in particular enhancing the sense of the festal. If my ears took a minute or so to adjust to a more ‘period’ sound for the kettledrums, I soon ditched my prejudice in the light of such intelligent, rhetorically and harmonically expressive playing from Stephan Möller. Apparent determination to wrest the ‘Air’ from ‘on the G string’ fame left it in a curious state: skated over, with most uncharacteristic vibrato-lite playing. Nosrati’s continuo playing, however, proved a delight. Following a pair of Gavottes that were lively and vigorous, if somewhat short-breathed, the Bourrée and Gigue sounded a little too much as if translated from the keyboard, fine orchestral playing notwithstanding.

The D minor Concerto, BWV 1052, opened in forthright fashion, Schiff’s tempo choice spot on. (Not that there is a ‘correct’ answer here, but rather that it should work within the context of the performance — which it did.) There was energy enough, but also space. I may have wished it to breathe more at times; again, however, it would be folly to insist upon one’s own aesthetic being applied to everything, for on its own terms, this worked well. A greater problem for me was a lack — at least on certain occasions — of piano legato and a certain heavy-handedness which may have led some to doubt the role of a Steinway in this music. The slow movement, similarly to the Suite’s Air, seemed haunted by a fear of ‘romanticising’; what we heard instead sounded oddly unengaged, Schiff’s piano tone often unforgiving. The finale, however, came off much better: tempo, clarity, and dynamism all just right. Most important of all, it possessed a sense of grandeur such as Bach demands and yet all too rarely receives. Old Bach, it felt, was truly here: not in Potsdam, still less in Leipzig, but in Berlin.

Mark Berry

1 thought on “András Schiff and the Staatskapelle Berlin offer the treat of hearing Bach on modern instruments”

  1. I love listening to Bach’s compositions whether they are piano or violin on period instruments as well as on modern instruments. I was taught to play the violin at the age of 12 and so I have a bias in favour of Bach’s violin transcriptions.

    I love listening to Bach’s piano transcriptions. Sir András Schiff is one of the best interpreters of Bach’s music.


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