Color. The buzz around this latest release of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has been Andras Schiff’s remarks about how each set of preludes and fugues, written in different keys, conveys color to the pianist. That, and his restraint in using the sustain pedal on the piano.
There’s a certain purity in Schiff’s approach to playing Bach, at least in this collection of ‘the 48.’ It is not dissimilar from the aesthetic taken by Keith Jarrett, in his earlier recording for ECM New Series, the same label on which this recording has been released.
Jarrett’s recording (of which I only own the first book, recorded on piano; he recorded the second on harpsichord) was of interest to me because, well, he’s Keith Jarrett, playing Bach. I remember finding the recording too bland, ultimately, minimalist in character. Bach without ornamentation; Jarrett in restraint. Did he feel he wasn’t allowed to do anything interesting with the music, because he wasn’t penned a classical artist?
Schiff’s recording benefits from the sound of his piano and its sympathetic acoustic. It might not have the same warm, yellow-brown glow that I see when listening to David Fray’s disc, but then again, maybe I’m starting to see colors too. All joking aside, the recorded sound, for the most part, is really nice. If I could control sliders on the mixing board, there are times I might dial-down the reverb a bit, opting really for closer mike placement and a drier sound. Gould’s recordings, not to mention the ultra-dry reading by Gulda, come to mind, as a contrast.
Schiff adopts a middle-of-the-road touch on the piano; he’s never too short, never too legato. He’s in the middle, offering differences when the music, naturally, seems to call for it.
All his tempos are relatively moderate. He’s never too slow or too fast. Tempos are also pretty regular, although rallentandos appear at the ends of many, almost to a super-dramatic close.
If I had to sum up Schiff’s approach, it’s to present Bach as cleanly as possible. Watching and reading about this recording has definitely revealed the pianist’s thinking about the music.
Which makes me recall some of Schiff’s earlier recordings of Bach, from the 1980s. I thought they were just a little bit too polite, wet (acoustically), and elegant to the point of becoming bland. For me, Bach’s music can be really deep and emotional. We can argue whether or not that character needs to come out, or not, through a performer’s amplification of the emotional patina (or soul, depending on where you think that emotion belongs in Bach).
In this way, I feel Angela Hewitt is more of a pianist. She’s never too bold to add terribly much personality to Bach’s music, but she will shape it to present it best she can on a piano. Gould by comparison did something very different with the same instrument, modifying the instrument to the service of the music, at times ignoring what to some seemed like common sense of aesthetics.
I can also compare the approach to that of a harpsichordist. Here, Pierre Hantaï pushes some of the pieces from WTC I to an extreme; his tempo choices or ornaments prescribe a flavor to the music, which allows it to take on a flavor that uniquely belongs to Pierre Hantaï.
I’m not so naive that I don’t see the same thing with every performer. But is the music there to reveal the artist? Or is the music supreme, with an artists role to offer the best service, without getting in the way?
Schiff clearly holds the music in high regard and takes the second approach. He’s the better classical pianist, over Jarrett, there is no doubt. And he’s not re-inventing each piece ala Fredrich Gulda.
Schiff presents one each prelude and fugue with its own unique flavor (he might call it a color). It’s a respectful approach, and it’s the kind of recording that sets a benchmark.
Earlier, I wrote about my favorite Prelude and Fugue, BWV 869. Schiff plows along in the prelude, carefully evoking the trio sonata texture. His bass is a little separated, to be polite, and the top is a little more legato, as if two winds were playing the two upper voices. His tempo, however, doesn’t match the genius slow approach Gulda took. That’s too bad.
The fugue is a more reasonable tempo, but where Gulda made big crescendos out of each piece in the pair, Schiff isn’t trying to inject a formal analysis onto the piece. He’s critical enough to help us hear the lines with separation, but not to the degree that it becomes too mannered. Gulda is taking everything the piano can do and superimposing that on Bach’s music. Schiff might be half-convinced that the instrument he’s playing isn’t the right one for Bach, but it’s the best one available to him, the performer, in 2013. His attitude about the pedal speaks to this; sustaining notes wasn’t possible with harpsichords, organs, or clavichords. The piano is the modern instrument, the evolved one, and it too can serve Bach’s music, in moderation.
It’s this philosophy, that I’ve been writing about, which surrounds this entire release. As a point of comparison, I cued up Edward Aldwell’s reading on Nonesuch. His piano was recorded in a less-dry acoustic; there’s more sharpness to the instrument’s articulation. The variance in tempi is greater, between pieces. The pedal, by comparison, “muddies” the sound a bit.
Aldwell was a good teacher of theory. Schiff is the better pianist.
And that’s the genius in his approach. He knows the music, loves the music, and his technique uses restraint as an aesthetic design. It’s only when you compare Schiff’s readings that others are too monochromatic or too jarring in their interpretations. I think Schiff accomplishes what Jarrett set out to do, to get out of the way and to let the music of Bach “speak” and be heard on its own.
In the end, I prefer the diversity of expression that Frederich Gulda provided in his reading from the early 1970s, if I could only choose one piano-based version of the WTC. That’s not to say, however, that Mr. Schiff hasn’t left us with a nice alternative.