Bach: Six Partitas – Schiff (ECM New Series 2001/02)


Johann Sebastian Bach
Six Partitas

András Schiff piano
Concert recording, September 21, 2007, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After completing his highly praised Beethoven cycle, pianist András Schiff returns to Bach in this spot-on live recording of the Six Partitas. Though published as his Opus 1, the Partitas were Bach’s last compositions for keyboard. Both reasons make it a keystone in the mythical Bach pantheon. Although “partita” is essentially a euphemism for “suite,” in Bach’s hands the form was opened to a freer and more complex sense of infrastructure and performative demands.

The introductions show both composer and performer at their best. The Praeambulum of Partita V is a tour de force of rhythmic urgency and dynamic control. The Fantasia of Partita III is another astounding inauguration, its resplendence cluing us into the genesis of the music to follow. The meditative Praeludium of Partita I contrasts sublimely with the Sinfonia of Partita II, the latter a stately lead-in to the courtliest of the Partitas. The accompanying Allemandes overwhelm with their sparks, conflagrating our souls into rapt attention. The pacing throughout is nothing short of extraordinary. Schiff’s sprightly Correntes glisten like rain-drenched leaves, tempering their surrounding flames with a quiet power.

Schiff truly excels in his ornaments. Take, for example, the heart-stopping trills of the Partita III Tempo di Minuetta, his detailed graces in the Passepied of the same, and the half-step motions of his Partita I Gigue. The Partita II Gigue provides some especially enlivening moments in which the right hand goes high and left hand carries the rhythm downward. Such motions broaden the expanse of the music into epic territories, which is all the more amazing for music that is so closely confined to the arm span of a single performer. Not to be outdone by his own passionate spirit, Schiff finesses his way through the Sarabandes of Partitas I and IV with the gentle persuasion of an aristocrat stripped to the naked heart. Also of note are the flowing syncopations of the Partita II Rondeau, played here to perfection in one of the performance’s most glorious turns. The following Capriccio pirouettes its way through a deft and vivacious choreography.

Schiff’s ordering—V, III, I, II, IV, VI—is conscious, moving in ascending keys from G major to E minor. It also carries us into the most heartfelt pieces therein. Partita VI is the castle of these sprawling grounds. Its lofty spaces give ample breathing room for the loveliest Sarabande of the collection, not to mention a strikingly forward-looking melody. Moving with a delicate ease and supreme comfort, it primes us for the epic Fugue through which all comes to a rousing close.

I have no interest in staking a claim in the already bristling ground of musical criticism as to whether Schiff is the better interpreter. All this humble admirer knows is that, like the other superstars to which one might compare him, he is unafraid to show us how he “feels” Bach. It’s not as if he accesses some pure core of the music that others do not, for he plays it as if it were his own. Whether or not one agrees with his stylistic choices, his commitment to them is undeniable. And perhaps said commitment is a more profound measure of the performer. If we consider some of the greats in this regard—Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Sviatoslav Richter, and Tatiana Nikolayeva—we find in each a style without regret, an allegiance to a particular historical moment (or possible transcendence thereof, in the case of Gould), and a total lack of interest in relativity. Each performance is not an ingot to be judged against the quality and density of others, but is a reflection of the musician’s own creative makeup that is beyond petty comparison. Rather than look at how and why interpretations differ, as listeners we can only find the differences they bring out in ourselves. And are we not also contributing to the uniqueness of the performance? For the same music can change with our moods and circumstances. And so, when we approach the Partitas, perhaps it benefits the music more to consider what we have to bring to the experience that no other listeners can bring, just as we might expect the same for the musician performing it. For me, the strength of Schiff’s playing is that it duly reminds us of our role on the other side of the piano, foregrounding our engagement, which is the music’s lifeblood. We see this in Schiff’s Beethoven cycle, his Schumann, and his Goldberg Variations. And now, with the Partitas we are given a greater responsibility to provide that “live” feeling ourselves in whatever private chambers we inhabit, or with whomever we might share it. This music is always there for us.

Like Bach’s other masterworks for solo instruments, the Partitas have a distinctive aura of completeness about them, which is to say they feel entirely self-satisfied. And it is this satisfaction Schiff brings to his playing: not a sign of arrogance, of professed authority, nor even of excellent musicianship, but rather the consummation that the music invites in the performing and in the listening. This is the genius of Bach: not the music itself, but in knowing our ability to hear in it forgotten pieces of ourselves. It may not be universal music, but so help me if it isn’t universally musical.

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