Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier – Schiff (ECM New Series 2270-73)

2270-73 X

Johann Sebastian Bach
Das Wohltemperierte Clavier

András Schiff piano
Recorded August 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-tempered Clavier is more than a magnum opus. It’s an origin story. Practically speaking, it houses a prelude-fugue couplet for each of the 24 major and minor keys, twice over. Dated 1722 and 1742 respectively, Books I and II are the subjects of two earlier ECM New Series recordings by Keith Jarrett, while pianist Till Fellner has lent his shadows to Book I. Jarrett made the bold decision to record Book I on piano and Book II on harpsichord, thereby giving discernible substance to the two decades that separate them. Fellner’s poignant rendition is only half completed, and it remains to be seen whether the rest will reach market. Until then, label devotees have another.

In his marvelous liner notes, Paul Griffiths characterizes the WTC as “one of the central thoroughfares of western music.” He goes on to speak of prelude and fugue as gate and path or, another way, “Things in The Well-Tempered Clavier always come in pairs, but pairs that, unlike butterfly wings, display an essential asymmetry, if an asymmetry that will sound inevitable, even natural.” Doubtless, this asymmetry is inevitable, for it is the pollen that keeps Bach’s fields fragrant. As a renowned veteran of the composer, András Schiff dusts decades of return into these flora. For him the question is not whether to approach them as studio recording or as performance, because for him the two are inseparable. “To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colors,” he asserts. As in the cover art by Jan Jedlička, the music crosses lines in a deepening network of variation.

Schiff concludes his portion of the booklet with a note on pedal use—or, in his case, total lack thereof. The music is all the freer for it, the affectation a potent expressive tool. Like a digital photographer reverting to manual, Schiff’s process gives vision to its subject with meticulous care. Whether or not this creates a “purer” sound is entirely subjective, though one can hardly fault the sincerity of his choice, for indeed the pedal is often fantasy’s servant. In its place is a tasteful reverb, lacquered at Lugano’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera under the watch of engineer Stephan Schellmann.

Eschewment of pedal shortens the distance between attack and delay, making it more akin to human speech. Already, in the C major Prelude of Book I, we feel a linguistic touch speaking through those famous arpeggios as Schiff makes of the piano a syllabic organ, no mere percussive machine. His ability to distinguish palatal colors becomes further apparent in the A-flat major Prelude. Schiff’s hands-only approach lends pop and shine to the faster movements, and to the slower adds emotional weight. It also makes the rhythmic complexities glow. Whether the playful grinds of the C minor and C-sharp minor Fugues or the balance of taste and virtuosity of the D major Prelude, the relationship between medium and message becomes, again, inevitable the more one listens.

Perhaps most illuminating in this regard is the equal partnership of the left and right hands. Listen, for instance, to Schiff’s handling of the C-sharp minor Fugue ground, which folds words into sentences and sentences into stories, or the coalescence achieved in his E minor Prelude. From epic carriage to dulcet tickling, such nuances sweep the landscape free of its weeds. Other moments, like the F-sharp major Prelude, are the espresso in a latte universe. Also noteworthy are the extended trills, which Schiff varies to suit the mood at hand. Twirling like maple propellers at one moment (G minor Prelude) and methodically slow the next (F-sharp minor Fugue), they hold us captive at any speed.

Brilliant execution of the C major Prelude and C-sharp minor Fugue stand out in Book II, sounding at least like three hands. The sheer volume of intimacy in the D-sharp minor Prelude draws a comparable spiral of creative focus, and the famous F minor Prelude enchants, ghostly but tangible. The F-sharp major Prelude is yet another notable. This Schiff manages beautifully, shifting with perfect pacing between the dotted eighth-sixteenth couplets and moving into strings of sixteenths in this 3/4 piece. Likewise, his downward chromatic steps in the A minor Prelude are intuitively realized. The final Prelude and Fugue in B minor scintillate with new beginnings and good tidings. Thus, Schiff has locked us into Bach’s prism (especially in the E minor Prelude of Book II) with the precision of a Spirograph wheel and has held us there until the design can no longer repeat itself.

Happiness theorists believe that we become habituated to surpluses of pleasure or positive stimulation, to the point where even the most meaningful activities lose the value they once held. Bach’s WTC noshes on time with the same measured reflection that the iconic shepherd chews on his wheat stalk. In that idle motion is a world of temperament whose secrets will never be fully disclosed. Listening to this music today, it is easy to imagine how different our world is from the time in which it was written. The beauty of Schiff’s performance and Bach’s insightful writing is that, despite the potential infinitude of performances the score invites, at its heart is a survival instinct that will never falter so long as life walks this earth.

(To hear samples of this album, click here.)

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