Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach – Suiten für Violoncello (ECM New Series 2530/31)

Demenga Bach

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello

Thomas Demenga violoncello
Recorded February 2014, Hans Huber-Saal, Basel
Engineer: Laurentius Bonitz
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

The Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, like his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, are touchstones for listeners and performers alike. In the latter sense, Thomas Demenga approaches them through an ECM lens for the second time here. Having first fragmented his traversal between 1986 and 2002 through a series of pairings with contemporary works, thereby suggesting exciting new relationships, here he uncovers intra- rather than interrelationships, moving from fundament to firmament and back again with mind and hands sculpted by experience into something unmissable.

Where some interpretations might seek to add something new, Demenga’s embrace something old, always there but too often crucified on the scoreboard of modernism. Here we encounter a return to form, if not also a form of return, in the deepest interest of music that springs eternal from Creator to creator. Referred to in Thomas Meyer’s liner essay as “every cellist’s gospel,” the Cello Suites do more than encourage rereading; they demand it. Having played these masterpieces for more than 50 years, Demenga understands that no one is ever “done” with them and that we’re all born and expire in its swaddling echoes.

In the First Suite, he carries an antique sensibility from first inhale of Prélude to last exhale of Gigue, working shadows into familiar nooks and crannies as if they constituted a physical substance. That same feeling of breath, more than metaphorical, whispers, rasps, and soliloquizes through the Second Suite’s philosophical journey. Its Prélude liquifies the heart and feeds it to another in a cycle of life that cannot be qualified by any other means than the gut strings and baroque bow with which Demenga has chosen to articulate every stroke. The Courante is strangely beautiful in its jagged denouement, while the Sarabande that follows it speaks with haunting urgency and the concluding Gigue with three-dimensional tactility.

The lithe stirrings of the Third Suite’s Prélude and Allemande form a dyad of such emotional integrity as to occupy a realm all their own. As in the famous Bourrée I & II, he dives inward for pearls of wisdom, unpolished and offered in their own shells, glorious specimens of nature whose perfection communicates in the language of imperfection. Demenga’s trills and glissandi are as surprising as they are organic, and flow of their own volition.

Says Demenga of Bach, “His music is detached from personal feelings and dramas or other events to which many composers give expression in their music. That is why his music is so pure and why it possesses, we might say, something divine.” In interest of that expression, this performance is made all the more solitary for its attention to dance-informed structures. This is especially evident in the program’s second half, which through the prism of the Fourth Suite shines a light striated with as much solemnity as exuberance. From the throaty Prélude unspools a narrative of timeless impulses. In the Allemande and Courante that follow, one can feel the soul of a viola da gamba squeezing through the strings, as if the latter were portals of mastery to which our ears must seem as eyes hungry for vistas beyond the known. And in the footwork of the final Gigue, the press of flesh into soil is vivid and alive.

From that sunlit scene Bach pivots into the twilight of the Fifth Suite. Here the modesty of its inception tangles in moral debate with its fleshly Courante—made all the more carnal for Demenga’s intuitive bowing—before finding solace in the blushing Gigue.

This leaves the Sixth Suite to stand as its own Book of Revelation, a scriptural culmination of all that came before it, a fulfillment of prophesies as old as they are indisputable, and which spread the good news of salvation not through words but actions.

As the opening movements—not least of all in the dizzying Prélude—suggest, we must find our own way into this music not by way of deciphering but in the knowledge of receiving a gift in and of faith. And if the finality of its Gigue is any indication, we must treat farewell as the opening of a deeper relationship with life itself, personified in every tremble of the waiting ear and reciprocated whenever we need to be reminded of purpose.

Yuuko Shiokawa/András Schiff: Bach/Busoni/Beethoven (ECM New Series 2510)

Bach Busoni Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa
András Schiff
Bach/Busoni/Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa violin
András Schiff piano
Recorded December 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

Seventeen years separate the first appearance of Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist András Schiff on ECM’s New Series and this long-awaited follow-up. Here they bring their intimate knowledge and experience to bear on sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Through its sequence and execution, the program reveals as much richness of ideas within the pieces as between them.

Shiokawa Schiff
(Photo credit: Barbara Klemm)

Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016, dating to his 1717-23 tenure as Kapellmeister at Köthen, is emblematic of a then-nascent genre, and finds both composer and interpreters ordering lines of many shapes and sizes. Schiff’s role at the keyboard is a challenging one, each hand operating independently yet with deep awareness of the other, while Shiokawa must paint with an actorly brush from first note to last. The vulnerability she brings to the opening Adagio is but one example of her ability to take something so lilting, so fragile, and render it impervious to the trampling feet of time. From there she takes us on a journey of inward focus, and by an interactive cartography traces bubbling streams to destinations of delight.

Although Busoni was more steeped in Bach than perhaps any composer before or since, one would be hard-pressed to find Baroque affinity in the first movement of his Sonata No. 2 in e minor, Op. 36a. Towering over a decidedly Beethovenian landscape, it leans toward and away from its historical precedents with fervor. Whereas single movements in the Bach were facets of a larger mosaic, each of Busoni’s sections is a sonata unto itself. The gargantuan final movement, however, is a theme and variations on the Bach chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seelen, wenn ich in deiner Liebe ruh,” as it appears in wife Anna Magdalena’s Clavier-Büchlein of 1725. Busoni’s 17-minute exegesis goes from funereal to exuberant and back again. Between those worthy bookends stand two slim, insightful volumes. Where the Presto is playful yet adhesive, the somber Andante treads over shifting terrain.

In light of these fantastic excursions, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major comes across as non-fiction. As the composer’s last violin sonata, it holds a status all its own, and its details are organically suited to the duo. Where the trills and harmonies of its Allegro yield an enchanting ripple effect, the Adagio holds us suspended as if in need of nothing more than a confirmation of breath. A brief Scherzo scales the highest peak before trekking down into an Allegretto with a joy given life through musicians who care genuinely for everything they touch. It’s therefore difficult to listen to this recording without reminding oneself that Shiokawa and Schiff are partners in both music and life. Not only because they play so lovingly, but also because they listen to each other with rapt attention, inspiring nothing short of the same.

Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry: Mirroring Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Simone

Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry
Goldberg Variations
Mechanics Hall
Worcester, Massachusetts
February 9, 2019

In her cycle of poems inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Alice B. Fogel describes the opening Aria: “All phases have beauty. Or in shaping time was Bach lost to all but the count, not consonance? One in the other, carriage and contained, body and spirit, hitched, indivisible.” Apt images to consider in relation to this masterwork for keyboard, wherein mathematical and unquantifiable principles intermingle until one cannot separate the two. Fogel’s words speak to the inherency of Bach’s art, and of the spark by which centuries of listeners have kindled its psychosomatic flames.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein keeps her own fire for Bach close to heart yet guides its warmth in a manner anyone can understand. After being invited by the string orchestra A Far Cry to lead a new ensemble arrangement of the Goldberg, she became part of an experience which, though insurmountable in concept, unraveled so organically as to feel inevitable. Bathed in the Aria’s wordless songcraft, it was impossible to be unmoved. Dinnerstein’s touch, as delicate as it was forthright, was a precise sequence of suspensions and emulsions. Like a photograph developing in the ears, it revealed its totality one gradation at a time. My six-year-old son, taking notes beside me, wrote down: “I like the music. It’s very relaxing, soft and slow.” Dinnerstein’s simplicity—a difficult tone to strike when technical demands weigh heavily in the balance—thus spoke to a child’s unfettered worldview as much as to his father’s verbose classical allegiances.

Variations 1, 8, and 16 were variously buoyant, soaring and resplendent. In all of these the violins took on a leading quality that recalled Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Accents from every string were tastefully chosen and rendered. Whether delineated in the jazzy bass line of Variation 2 or the playful minutiae of Variation 5, there were more valleys than peaks to navigate from one end of this palindrome to the other. Rare passages in which either the piano or the orchestra played without the other therefore came across with that much more intimacy.

The hall’s collective breath had more avenues to travel in the slower Variations, of which the plucked conversation between cello and viola in 17 was a wonder. Even more so Variation 25, which Dinnerstein imagined as a chorale and therefore called upon the musicians to set aside their instruments and sing. Had it continued long enough, we might have started singing ourselves. Another highlight was Variation 28, for which Dinnerstein plucked the piano’s inner strings like a recumbent harp while the orchestra stretched this typically busy section into an open weave. The music ended as it began, with the piano alone, looking into the timeless mirror of which this performance was a heartfelt reflection.

As with the best tributes, A Far Cry didn’t so much add as draw out from within. All the more appropriate that Dinnerstein should be presented with a key to the city of Worcester by Mayor Joe Petty before the concert began, for indeed she gave us a key of her own design to the Goldberg unlike any fashioned before.

Thomas Demenga review for Sequenza 21

My latest review for Sequenza 21 is of Thomas Demenga’s recent concert at Weill Recital Hall. The concert, given in celebration of his new ECM recording of the Bach cello suites, paired two of those suites with works by Elliott Carter and B. A. Zimmermann. Click the photo below to read on.

Demenga-Thomas_-photo-by-Ismael-Lorenzo
(Photo credit: Ismael Lorenzo)

Bach: Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano – Makarski/Jarrett (ECM New Series 2230/31)

Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano

Johann Sebastian Bach
Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano

Michelle Makarski violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded November 2010 at American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

J. S. Bach’s Six Sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019) are not often recorded on piano, but few masters of the modern keyboard could make the combination work so articulately as Keith Jarrett. Although he might just as well have opted for harpsichord, as he did in duet with violist Kim Kashkashian for a benchmark recording of Bach’s Three Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (ECM New Series 1501), this time around the piano seems an intuitive choice. And for a partner, Michelle Makarski is ideal. Not only because she and Jarrett had been playing these pieces together on their own time for two years before stepping into the studio, but more importantly because she recognizes the power of an unfettered performance that serves the music over ego.

Makarski and Jarrett

Written in the early 1720s during Bach’s Cöthen period, which encompassed both the tragedy of his first wife’s death and the triumph of his Brandenburg Concerti, these sonatas have rarely sounded more tessellated. There is a rounded quality to Jarrett’s pianism, which cushions Makarski’s pin-like precision. Thus, to the common characterization of the violin and keyboard as equal partners in these pieces, Makarski and Jarrett seem to say, “Let’s just see where the music leads us.” And indeed, spotlights of favor fall on either instrument at different points throughout the cycle.

Half of the sonatas are in major keys (Nos. 2 in A Major, 3 in E Major, and 6 in G Major), the other half in minor (Nos. 1 in b minor, 4 in c minor, and 5 in f minor). The majors are distinguished by their dulcet introductions and masterful harmonies, but each has its own idiosyncrasies. Where No. 2 balances spiraling architecture with pointillist delicacies, the astonishing No. 3 boasts interlocking color schemes and a heartrending Adagio, in which the violin emotes with all the history of a folksong. Yet the Sonata No. 6 is the most maturely constructed of them all. From its opening courtship of wing and wind, through the uniquely solo keyboard meditation at sonata center, and on to the boisterous finish, it follows a downright linguistic arc of development.

It is sometimes tempting to treat slow movements in Baroque repertoire as filler. Not so here, for in them Bach has cut some of the most precious jewels of his entire oeuvre. In addition to their robustness and lyrical integrity, Makarski’s uniquely nuanced vibrato lends them sanctity over ornament. Whether shining through Jarrett’s laden branches in the Andante of the Sonata No. 1 or chaining double stops through the Adagio of the Sonata No. 5, she treats each draw of the bow as a song in and of itself. Jarrett, by contrast, excels in the faster portions, showing in the final Allegro of No. 1 why his sense of rhythm is so acutely suited to Bach. The two find deepest equilibrium in the Sonata No. 4, which is like one giant helix, unbreakable and spinning.

The album’s booklet contains no notes—rare for an ECM classical release. Then again, the music has all the notes it needs. These roll off the fingers of the present interpreters like fluent speech from the tongue, creating a book on the first listen, the binding of which will only strengthen as its cover is opened time and again.

(To hear samples of Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano, click here.)

Sinikka Langeland: Maria’s Song (ECM 2127)

Maria's Song

Sinikka Langeland
Maria’s Song

Sinikka Langeland voice, kantele
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Kåre Nordstoga organ
Recorded February 2008, Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim
Engineer: Ove Berg
Editing: Ove Berg, Jean Lewis (Suite, Chaconne)
An ECM Production

ECM may be nominally dedicated to contemporary music, but Johann Sebastian Bach has been a vital touchstone in its classical recordings. Whether acting as a foil to modern works in Thomas Demenga’s multi-album traversal of the Cello Suites or as the exclusive subject of fresh interpretations by Keith Jarrett and András Schiff at the keyboard, Bach has either existed as a point of reference or as a master being reckoned with anew toward the asymptote of definitive interpretation. Only Christoph Poppen has gone a step further, weaving Bach into the work of Anton Webern (as Webern himself had done) and exploring hidden chorales of the solo violin literature. That was, until Maria’s Song, which is by far, and may always be, ECM’s profoundest reckoning with Bach.

Previously for the label, Norwegian folk singer and kantele (15-string Finnish table harp) virtuoso Sinikka Langeland had recorded Starflowers and The Land That Is Not, both of which sought to explore the shared heart of folk and jazz around the heliocenter of Langeland’s full-throated voice. This time she is joined by Lars Anders Tomter, previously of Ketil Bjørnstad’s The Light, who plays a Gasparo da Salò viola made in 1590, apparently one of the world’s finest examples of the instrument. With them is Kåre Nordstoga, playing the 30-register Baroque organ of Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral. Nordstoga is the principal organist at Oslo Cathedral and a Bach specialist, having performed two complete traversals of the composer’s organ music over 30 Saturday recitals in 1992 and 2000.

Langeland Trio
(Photo credit: Morten Krovgold)

The program is a mixture of Marian texts from Luke set to folk melodies and medieval ballads, then threaded through the loom of Bach’s hymns (and the Concerto in d minor, BWV 596) at the organ. In addition, Tomter plays viola arrangements of the Solo Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (played an octave higher) and the Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004 (transposed to g minor). A few things make this a remarkable project. First is Langeland’s immensity of knowledge, on which she draws to assemble a program of such originality that it feels as seamless as its pairings of word and melody. Second is her voice. Possessed of a luminescent, youthful energy, her intonation makes scripture feel like a sheaf of grain distilled into something digestible by the soul. Last is the utter respect with which the musicians perform, respect that emits a sacred light of its own. And no wonder, considering that the spirit of these texts was at one time forbidden in Norway, where the Reformation of 1537 disbanded monasteries and consigned church relics and artifacts, including depictions of Mary, to state storehouses. Worship of the Virgin thus became the stuff of hidden messages and codes, and in these songs Langeland has enacted their recovery.

“Lova lova Lina” is the first encoding of Mary and, like many of Langeland’s segues throughout the disc, is sung with only the cathedral’s resonant air as accompaniment. Along with the “Ave Maria,” it reappears transformed. At times, Langeland’s fingers find their way to the kantele, both as support for the voice and as a voice unto itself. A reprise of “Lova lova Lina” is especially potent for marrying the two. Narratively inflected singing throughout makes of the shuffled program something of a passion play, in which dialogues between Heaven and Earth come to define the natural order of things. One might expect the viola to brighten Bach’s solo cello writing, when in fact it casts a deeper, more spectral shadow. The feeling is distinctly cyclical, as emphasized by the vocal surroundings, and reaches open-gated confluence in the mighty Chaconne, over which the “Ave Maria” is dutifully papered. The organ, too, sings as it speaks, lifting Langeland in “Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar,” BWV 607 and, on its own, ascending the spiral staircase of the “Fuga sopra il Magnificat,” BWV 733 at hub of it all. Even the Concerto transcription unleashes the Holy Spirit at an intersection of past and future. As Langeland recalls in her liner notes, “While we played our way through time, the Nidaros Cathedral reflected the spiritual currents of a thousand years. The large Russian icon stared at us as we began to record. The dawn light poured through the huge rose window as we finished the night’s recording.” To be sure, we can feel all of these things…and more.

Leonidas Kavakos/Péter Nagy: Stravinsky/Bach (ECM New Series 1855)

Stravinsky:Bach

Stravinsky/Bach

Leonidas Kavakos violin
Péter Nagy piano
Recorded October 2002, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mirrors or two sides of the same coin? This electrifying album by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy answers the question: neither. Stravinsky was indebted to Bach, as so many who put pen to staves ever will be, and explored the Baroque master’s architectures to the very end—even working, the story goes, on Bach transcriptions on his death bed. Yet the Russian iconoclast accomplished a remarkable something that set him apart. Unlike so many before him, he did not shine his light through Bach’s prism but rather shined Bach’s through his own.

Stravinsky’s crucible in this regard was at its hottest in the Duo concertant (1931/32). One of two pieces written for violinist Samuel Dushkin (this for violin and piano, the other his 1931 Violin Concerto), it was not in a format the composer favored at the time but one he nonetheless reconciled through neoclassical rigor. Oscillating between the earthly and the mythological, the piece its composer called a “musical versification” finds unity in gradually joining the two. The first and last of its five movements—the Cantilène and the Dithyrambe—bear mysterious nomenclature. The one blossoms from a pianistic blush to an overpowering charge from the bow. The other drips with lachrymose quality, suspended high above Olympus casting threads to mortal hearts down below. Between them is another dyad, this of two “Epilogues” of friction and protraction in turn. And with them is the sprightly Gigue, one of Stravinsky’s finest moments, played here with integrity.

What sets Kavakos’s playing apart is his ability to be at once fluid and sharp, a quality that lends itself well to the above but also to the below, for in the Partita No. 1 in B minor that follows we hear exactly this contradiction at play. Although two centuries separate these works, Bach’s solo violin masterpiece feels remarkably present in this rendering. Kavakos gives the almighty Allemande a stately treatment, beginning with it a series of four movements and their faster “Doubles.” The first of the latter reveals barest tuning issues in Kavakos’s instrument, but these are quickly brushed away by the Corrente, which he plays with especial care, in the process exploiting the record’s engineering at full potential. The Sarabande likewise unfolds in its dance of blade and water toward the final Tempo di Borea and its Double, by which the music reaches a cavernous interior filled with stalagmites pontific.

The program returns to Stravinsky with the 1933 Suite Italienne for violin and piano. Based on his ballet Pulcinella, it proves the glistening counterpart to the Duo concertant, the spring to its thaw. The affirmation of its introductory motives barely hints at the fiery Tarantella which is the piece’s prime turn—a ball of yarn expertly unraveled. Kavakos’s hefty double stops nourish their flames on Nagy’s pointillist sparks. The folk-like Scherzino is another highlight and sets up the Minuet and Finale with authorial flourish.

From these concentrations we return once more to Bach, whose Sonata No. 1 in G minor reveals further affinity. From the cautious first half to the dawn-like awakening of the third movement and into the forward thinking of the final Presto, it develops itself like one long proclamation—slowed here and sped up there—until it glows.

Those thinking of buying this album for ECM’s treatment of the Bach will want to check out Holloway and Kremer’s versions first. In any event, the Sonatas and Partitas will always overshadow their interpreter. For the Stravinsky? Look no further.

Anna Gourari: Canto Oscuro (ECM New Series 2255)

2255 X

Anna Gourari
Canto Oscuro

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded May 2011, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Born 1972 to a family of musical pedagogues, Russian (and, since 1990, Munich-based) pianist Anna Gourari makes her ECM debut with a characteristically unconventional recital…or so it would seem. Two of J. S. Bach’s chorale preludes, as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni, parenthesize the program’s modern heart. “Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” both come from the incomplete Orgelbüchlein, a pedagogical scrapbook compiled in the earthy 18th century. Busoni’s erudite touch burgeons further in Gourari’s, opening a doorway all the grander for being so austere. Yet here is a Bach that, while adorned, breathes with the minimalism of a single voice. The tenderness of these leaves betray nothing of the fragile limb to which they cling.

From light to brokenness, the program tilts its wings eastward to Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne. Composed in 1962, this deconstruction of a b-minor triad represents an key period in the Russian composer’s development. One may be tempted to read grand philosophical statements of suffering into such music, when really it turns itself inside out for all to hear. This is not an evocation of suffering, per se, but an acknowledgment of its necessity. The effect is such that even the overt references to Bach come across as probing, strangely confident, and spiraled like a unicorn’s horn. Its elegiac impulse is foxed by ragged edges, given light in measured doses. Here is a lighthouse without a vessel to guide, a signal without a flare.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), a prolific composer yet one whose piano works have only in recent years begun to crop up on CD programs, is given plenty of space in Gourari’s ecstatic take on his Suite “1922.” Although its effect would surely have raised a few eyebrows that same year, as was Hindemith’s intention, today his experiment stands as a fascinating cross-section of early expressionism. Over the course of five parts, this jocular, if rigorous, piece takes us on a wild ride. Titles like “Shimmy,” “Boston,” and “Ragtime” transport the listener to a time when said dances still hit the floor, when financial doom was still some years away. Such historical perspective lends poignancy to the central movement, a “Nachtstück.” Like a fragment of title card found in the wreckage of a silent film warehouse, it tells only part of the story that its context makes abundantly clear. Hindemith’s references are seeds for more complexly developed ideas and beg comparison with contemporary George Antheil, whose own “Shimmy” graces Herbert Henck’s fascinating Piano Music. Gourari’s resolute command of, and passion for, the material makes this a benchmark recording.

Anna Gourari

Busoni resurrects Bach again in his supernal arrangement of the Chaconne from the solo violin Partita No. 2. The mighty Chaconne has always been a keystone in Bach’s solo literature. That it speaks with the same colors is testament both to arranger and performer. From the chord-enhanced arpeggios to the requisite drama throughout, Gourari allows the music to resound not by means of surface but interior. If Busoni has given it an elastic quality, then she has stretched it to the limit in an interpretation that promises to open new doorways with every listen.

Were this program a long day, Bach’s e-minor Prélude (transposed here to b minor) would be its longed-for slumber. In a stained glass arrangement courtesy of composer-conductor Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), this relatively small piece from the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach reminds us that duration has nothing to do with density. There is bounty in this music that one discovers through living it.

(To hear samples of Canto Oscuro, click here.)

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.)