Pianist Ferruccio Busoni once said that, when performing, a musician must, “Find and lose himself at the same time.” I have the feeling that András Schiff was doing exactly that when he played the complete first book of J. S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. After the final chord of the 24th fugue, I felt that to applaud would have been almost rude, or at least an intrusion, since Schiff was obviously so very absorbed in Bach’s sound world. (I cannot help but recall Glenn Gould’s very clever and funny article: Let’s Ban Applause.) For more than two hours, András Schiff was a man who lost himself in Bach’s music, and yet one who saw clearly the way before him. A fine balance indeed.
What can one say after such an evening? To use words like “great”, or “wonderful”, or even “magnificent” seems trite and meaningless after such an experience. One can only say what a privilege it had been to witness the recreation of Bach’s miraculous creations – the first of two books of preludes and fugues in alternating major and minor keys. In the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, and in the Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering, Bach exploited contrapuntal compositional technique with such mastery, and reached such incredible heights of sophistication and complexity, that he essentially left other composers with nothing more to say on the subject.
András Schiff wrote that, “Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours.” Certainly, comparing Schiff’s playing of these pieces with that of Glenn Gould’s recordings, Gould’s interpretation is, deliberately so, much more austere - I cannot help but make an association with Gould’s fondness for black and white films. Schiff’s interpretation is certainly full of colours and, for lack of a better word, more “romantic” – not in the sense that he disregards Baroque performance practice, but in that his playing has more of a sense of fantasy. While, for me, Gould’s playing transcends the instrument, Schiff makes no apologies about exploring all the tonal possibilities of the modern piano – and what a beautiful Steinway he was playing on last night! Surely Bach’s compositions leave room for a whole host of varying interpretations, all equally valid.
In his playing, Schiff made it seem like each prelude leads seamlessly into the fugue, which in turn leads into the next set. The pianist has lived with these pieces for a long time, and there was an incredible sense of totality in his playing of the entire set. In the massive B Major fugue, the last of the set, he made it seem as if the entire piece was conceived in one long breath, and he builds the music with a clear sense of the goal. When he reaches the magical B Major chord at the end, there was a feeling of complete satisfaction.
The Vancouver Recital Society has scored a real coup here in having András Schiff give the first concert of his year-long Bach project, where he will perform throughout North America the bulk of Bach’s major solo works – the Well Tempered Clavier, the French Suites, the English Suites, the Partitas, and culminating with a performance of the Goldberg Variations in Carnegie Hall, New York. We must be grateful to Leila Getz, artistic director of the VRS, for bringing us concerts of this calibre, so that we in our little corner of
Vancouver can experience the same recitals as audiences in New York, London and . Paris
But in the end, we are left to ponder, in wonder and amazement, at these incredible musical works that Bach left us: Music that elevates the mind, fills the soul, and lifts the spirit. Music that, in the words of Arthur Schnabel, is greater than anyone could ever play. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for having Mr. Schiff in our midst, for making this music come alive with his hand and heart.
And humanity will forever be in your debt, Johann Sebastian Bach.