Bach: Solo keyboard works

WORKS: Solo keyboard works
PERFORMER: András Schiff (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 452 279-2
Here’s a treasure trove, and no mistake. At its best, Schiff’s Bach playing is one of the glories of the age. In a compendium of this magnitude it would be remarkable if the playing were unfailingly consistent, and few listeners are likely to find everything equally satisfying. That said, the standard is extraordinarily high. Recorded over the space of nine years and in a variety of moods, these performances are remarkable for their polish, their contrapuntal clarity, their imaginative range and their pianistic resourcefulness. Above all, however, they radiate a degree of love for the music, a degree of spiritual exaltation and unfettered joy, which is in many cases hopelessly contagious.


But be careful how you start. The opening Prelude in Book 2 of the ‘48’, for instance, gives little hint of the riches which lie in store. There are times when the rhythm tends to stagnate a little, when metre becomes a trifle too metric, and phrasing a trifle too square. But these are greatly outnumbered by performances of a musical and pianistic sophistication seldom encountered these days.

And such reflections are almost unavoidable: nostalgia is a natural by-product of the playing, which in some ways is deliciously unfashionable. Its patron saints are the likes of Fischer, Landowska, Casals, Horszowski, Szigeti – artists who never allowed historicity to supplant musicianship of the deepest and most ennobling kind. Indeed, the playing calls up still earlier shades: I mean no disrespect whatever to Schiff in suggesting that this is probably very close to the way Chopin played Bach. It’s playing of a profoundly pianistic nature, yet there isn’t a trace of self-indulgence or misplaced Romanticism about it. Not for Schiff the jubilant spurning of the sustaining pedal which you get with Glenn Gould, or the meticulously unspontaneous analytical approach of Rosalyn Tureck. His use of the pedals is as sophisticated as the rest of his playing, but he draws on them for colouristic purposes only. Not once are they allowed to obscure the polyphonic texture one iota. Case-hardened Gouldians may find his playing too beautiful by half (remiscent, indeed, of Gould’s characteristic disparagement of his own early Bach recordings as sounding ‘like Chopin nocturnes’).


It would be quite wrong, however, to suggest that Schiff is in the slightest degree undisciplined. His use of rubato is sparing – no Rachmaninovian swanning about here (just try the Russian in the Sarabande from the D major Partita!) – and his grasp of large-scale structure is as commanding as Sviatoslav Richter’s at its most imposing. Commanding, yes; austere or forbidding, never. If there’s one element of Bach’s character which Schiff perhaps fails to reflect, it’s the sheer, invigorating toughness of the man. But who’s complaining? Jeremy Siepmann