Andras Schiff launches the Bach Project

When we last saw the pianist Andras Schiff in Washington, he was focused on Robert Schumann. Before that, he was involved in a multiyear project of recording and performing the sonatas of Beethoven. But to say he is returning to Bach is a misstatement; he never left it. “I have been playing Bach every day,” he says. “That is how I start my day. Usually the preludes and fugues. Before I do anything else, I play an hour of Bach.”

That’s really the way to hear Bach, too: played at home, in the clean light of morning before the day has been muddied by outside activities, through the tiny voice of a clavichord, Bach’s preferred instrument, precise and modulated and so small that, Schiff says, “it can only be enjoyed by the player and maybe a handful of listeners.” What better way to experience a sequence of pieces that were written partly as instruction, from a father to his children, and partly as a composer’s exploration of the possibilities of a set of instruments that were still being invented: the harpsichords and clavichords and organs and other keyboard instruments collectively known as “claviers”?

(Sheila Rock) - Andras Schiff.

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But modern concert life doesn’t allow this kind of intimacy. So Schiff is performing this sequence of 48 preludes and fugues, collected into two books as “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” on a modern piano in concert halls around the country, as part of a “Bach Project” that continues through November 2013. The whole project comprises performances of the English and French Suites, the Partitas, the Goldberg Variations and both books of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” a Bach hexathlon of the monuments of the composer’s keyboard oeuvre. San Francisco is one of three cities that will get to experience the whole thing. Washington is not so lucky; Schiff offers only one of the concerts here, the second and arguably most challenging book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” which he will perform at the Music Center at Strathmore on Oct. 30.

Cue the hyperbole: Schiff is one of the great Bach pianists of our time; Bach is the greatest master of Western music. Such phrases get worn smooth with overuse until they seem the jargon of program books and season brochures. But it’s a musician’s calling to take well-worn things and make them seem new. At 58, Schiff still has traces of the elfin youth in his serene otherworldliness, the distant expression in his pale eyes, the light honest touch of his fingers quietly illuminating the keyboard. He has the reticence of the true musician, someone who is a lot more interested in the composer himself than in putting across his own persona.

As for Bach, “I find that he’s on a different level,” Schiff says. “And I think all the others who came after him, they all looked at him as the father figure of music. He was the inspiration.” In a conversation with writer and musician Stuart Isacoff that’s been released as a video on YouTube, he notes Bach’s universal appeal: “Most people would agree,” he says, with a smile. “If you really dislike Bach, you keep quiet about it.”

Schiff has resisted being branded a Bach specialist, but the composer has been a dominant figure — or a leitmotif — in a career notable for its focus on one composer at a time. “I do like to think in terms of cycles or projects,” Schiff says. “I find that just playing a single prelude and fugue is not necessarily simpler or easier than playing 48, but by playing 48 I understand the single one certainly better. They all hang together, influence each other. Playing 32 Beethoven sonatas is more satisfying than playing one.”

And for a completest — or for audiences with lots of endurance — Bach offers plenty of opportunities for cyclical performances. When Schiff first emigrated to the West at the age of 25, in 1979, Bach’s major keyboard works were among the first things he recorded. In 1985, the tricentennial of Bach’s birth, his Bach performances included the Goldberg Variations and the Partitas at Carnegie Hall. The 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, in 2000, saw Schiff delivering a powerful homage — “a monumental series of concerts,” said the New York Times — with the English and French Suites, the Partitas, the Goldberg Variations, and both books of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Over the intervening years, Schiff has made new recordings of the major Bach keyboard works for his current label, ECM, culminating in a new release of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” this fall. And now he has embarked on the “Bach Project.”

It’s not dogma (“Bach should be done this way”) that leads him to return. Not even a sense of wanting to set the record straight. Of his old recordings, “there are no regrets,” he says, “like the Edith Piaf song, ‘Je ne regrette rien,’ because I did it as well as I could.” He equates recordings not with milestone markers, but with something as simple as a snapshot. “I don’t think they are made for eternity,” he says of his recordings. “They are like photos of yourself. . . . If you have a chance to take further photos of yourself that are different, one is grateful for the opportunity.”

Schiff’s attitude toward Bach may have changed less, over the years, than posterity’s. In the 1990s, he still had to defend the merits of playing Bach’s music on a modern piano. Today, plenty of pianists use modern pianos for Bach, and modern approaches that are decidedly anachronistic and make Schiff look almost conservative by comparison. Schiff used to be compared to Glenn Gould, noted for his individuality; now, more often, Schiff is described as cool, Apollonian, restrained, though this could be as much about his serene appearance than about the actual sound of the instrument.

“We do not know and cannot say what instrument [“The Well-Tempered Clavier”] was written for,” Schiff says — some combination of harpsichord (“a public instrument,” he says), clavichord, and Bach’s key instrument, the organ. “I find that the modern piano is the only instrument that you can play all these pieces on.” Schiff’s concession — if you will — to historically informed performance is his near-complete avoidance of the use of any of the pedals. His feet stay almost still while his fingers weave together the complex counterpoint, giving each note its due; the resulting sound, slightly facetted and crisp-edged, does evoke some early keyboard instruments.

This isn’t to say it’s not emotional or expressive. But it’s true that Schiff is not an emoter. He is one of those un-flashy artists who wipes away layers of mannerism and reveals what lies at the music’s core. His reading of that core can be plenty quirky, but he’s not going to inflict it on you; he simply offers it and lets you decide for yourself.

“It’s a very colorful sequence of pieces,” he says of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” “It should have endless colors and characters. Each prelude and each fugue must have a distinct character.”

Bach, he says, is “a never-ending story. I am just a beginner. It’s also a work in progress.”

Andras Schiff plays
Book Two of
“The Well-Tempered Clavier”

at the Music Center at Strathmore on Oct. 30, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS).

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