Wake Up to Big Daddy Bach: Schiff Celebrates the Master

At the close of his astonishing three-concert series at Lincoln Center devoted to the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Andras Schiff’s first bow was not to the overflow audience in Avery Fisher Hall but to the piano–a little nod of the head that I took to be less an act of recognition of his Hamburg Steinway’s splendid qualities of color and clarity than an expression of gratitude to the “great papa” of modern, classical composers. In three programs that explored Bach’s transformation of Baroque courtly dance forms into multichaptered, tightly picaresque musical epics–the six English suites, the six French suites and the six partitas–Mr. Schiff made an unforgettable contribution to the longest-running revival in the history of music.

It may seem perverse to talk about a “revival” in the case of a composer whose Olympian mastery was acknowledged as long ago as the late 18th century, who–thanks largely to the efforts of Mendelssohn–was the subject of a widely influential movement in the 19th century, whose representation on disk in our own time is copious enough to stock a whole record store, and whose presence as background music in his Brandenburg Concertos has become as ubiquitous as Starbucks. But, curiously, in our concert life the immense world of Bach remains more honored than visited–a place reserved for annual religious occasions, like Christmas and Easter and, among performers, the province of specialists.

It has become de rigueur for cellists of ambition to scale, at some point in their maturity, the unaccompanied cello suites. But how many singers outside the world of Baroque adepts include a Bach aria in their concert programs? How many violin virtuosos who can toss off the Tchaikovsky concerto without blinking an eye choose to show their stuff in one of the unaccompanied sonatas or partitas? And who, among the top ranks of pianists, dares to include one of the keyboard masterpieces in a program otherwise devoted to, say, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt?

Robert Schumann’s heart was surely in the right place when he advised young pianists: “Let The Well-Tempered Clavier be your daily bread. Then you will certainly become a solid musician.” Nonetheless, that famous injunction–and so many like it–continues to foster the image of Bach’s music as nutritious rather than pleasurable, more oatmeal than foie gras .

But as instructive as the two books of 48 preludes and fugues undoubtedly are for piano students, the experience of Bach’s music goes far beyond worthiness. A persistent paradox about a composer whose more than 1,000 compositions were written almost entirely on demand and for practical use is that, from the time of Mozart to the present day, Bach’s music has seized listeners with the shock of revelation–as music that sweeps up all that came before it and transforms it into something entirely fresh.

In today’s top rank of pianists who command a wide-ranging repertoire, Andras Schiff stands alone in his commitment to Bach as a well of bottomless musical discoveries. His many recordings for London-Decca have long established him as the foremost proponent of Bach’s keyboard works on the modern piano since Glenn Gould. These are performances of tremendous élan, delicacy, muscularity and color that reveal Wagner’s “miracle man” to have been anything but a wretched, miserably underpaid, wandering cantor. And yet Mr. Schiff is a musician who shines most in live performance. He is a pianist whose ability to camouflage the instrument’s innate percussiveness with a beautiful tone and whose desire to make Bach delightful can, when overpolished by a recording engineer, seem almost too much of a good thing. But in person, his playing comes fully alive, with a generosity of spirit, mind and risk-taking for which, among today’s pianists, he is matched only by the seldom-heard life-force known as Martha Argerich.

Mr. Schiff played his first two Bach programs, of the English and French suites, in Alice Tully Hall, whose spacious intimacy is ideal for his temperament and sound. The earlier English suites, written at the end of the second decade of the 18th century, were composed as after-dinner elaborations on the dance forms–allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, bourrées, gavottes, minuets and gigues–that were the rage in the Baroque era. Emotionally, they range from exuberant to exuberantly playful to exuberantly wistful–an excess of high spirits that can pall when heard in succession over nearly three hours.

But Mr. Schiff, whose quietly formal Old World manner complements this music, had an unflagging zestfulness with the suites that, almost literally, took one’s breath away. Playing virtually without pedal and from note-perfect memory, he displayed a range of tonal colors in a canvas of luminous transparency, which conjured at appropriate moments a sunburst, the rush of water over pebbles, or the worldly magnificence of a princely mansion. Mr. Schiff was first inspired to dive into Bach when, as a young boy in postwar Budapest, he heard a pirated copy of Glenn Gould’s landmark 1956 recording of the Goldberg Variations . From Gould he learned much about the importance of propulsive pacing and sharply accented rhythm, as well as the challenge of finding a way to exploit the modern piano’s powers of dynamics while retaining the Baroque emphasis on crystalline, evenhanded articulation. But Mr. Schiff’s playing can make Gould’s sound dry and driven. Throughout all three programs, he enlivened the marathon dance party with subtle use of rubato–the slowing down or speeding up of tempo that is music’s way of signaling a lingering glance or a trace of impetuosity–without breaking the all-important rhythmic line.

Above all, what Mr. Schiff brought to these programs–and will bring, I expect, to his recitals of the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier , Books I and II, when he completes his Bach series at Carnegie Hall next fall–was the sense of a man sharing with us his enjoyment of the most sustaining activity he has known in life. Years ago, Mr. Schiff told me that he began every waking day of practice by playing Bach. After his program of the partitas, he told me that it’s a habit he still maintains–not because he’s working up a particular Bach program but because it’s simply the best way he knows of coming into the world. Whether it’s a form of daily bread or a way of opening the bedroom curtains and seeing what kind of day it is, Mr. Schiff’s Bach is the best wake-up call I can imagine.