J.S. Bach, the Well Tempered Clavier (ECM)

One of several monuments Johann Sebastian Bach left to the world of music is the collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues contained in the two volumes of The Well Tempered Clavier.

As with so much Bach wrote, these pieces are theoretical explorations in composition, practical exercises for the keyboard player and pieces to be enjoyed as music — both by the person making it, and the one who happens to be listening.

When confronted as a whole, these 96 pieces — two preludes and two fugues for each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys — also presents an incredible exercise in perspective from all concerned. It’s like confronting an Old Master painting in a gallery, which can be viewed one way from the bench, with the amount of detail changing the view as one approaches and gets close enough to see each stroke of the brush or palette knife.

One thing is clear: Bach never intended these pieces to be played or listened to in one, continuous sitting. But we Moderns can’t resist climbing impossible peaks, and so the great pianists record complete cycles and program them in recitals, to encourage us to share in the climb — and the potential vistas if it happens to be a clear day.

Hungarian-British pianist Andras Schiff has attempted this particular trek before, but felt, for whatever reason, that he needed to do it again.

What we get is an impeccably balanced, carefully measured journey through Bach’s limitless imagination. It’s an effort that commands respect, but not necessarily love.

Schiff, who has been playing these pieces for the bulk of his long career, has taken each Prelude and Fugue, assigned it a character and then laid it out with uncanny precision. He uses no pedal, keeping the sound direct, close.

Intellectually and technically, this 4-CD box is a coup. But, emotionally, it is like spending a weekend poring over balance sheets with an accountant.

The modern piano offer a virtually limitless number of options to the interpreter. Not exploring the full dynamic possibilities of the instrument is as much a choice as deciding to play these pieces with all sorts of pianistic embellishments of legato, dynamic shifts and pedal work to sustain certain harmonics.

Schiff wants us to hear the notes in detail and, as the perspective shifts, appreciate the subtle changes in texture and tempo and overall feel of each key as we move from prelude to fugue and back to prelude again. This is a huge accomplishment.

But, when all is heard, I have to admit I prefer a more interventionist pianist, someone like Angela Hewitt, who I believe provides the modern listener with the most dramatic perspective of all: the option of experiencing these exercises purely as beautiful music, complete with finger-spoken commentary, nuance and the pacing of an accomplished storyteller.

For all the details on this album, click here.

Here is an instructive backgrounder video on the album, released by ECM:

John Terauds

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3 Responses to Album review: Pianist Andras Schiff scales the mountainside of J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier

  1. Jordan says:

    Can you compare these new recordings with his older, early-80s version?

    • John Terauds John Terauds says:

      Hi Jordan,
      The original Decca set was similarly clear, unforced and balanced. I think the tempi in the earlier recording are a touch slower and Schiff is a slight bit more pianistic (and I swear he uses the pedal judiciously). The new recording is more distilled-sounding, more spare.

  2. Andrew Ager says:

    There is a little-known addendum to Bach’s apparent lack of interest in the early pianos of his time, which comes from the “Bach Forschung, Band IX” (Berlin, 1974), in which one reads:

    “With his usual mixture of visionary foresight and practicality, Bach made it clear that he understood that the development of the piano was inevitable, and that it would give rise to an entirely new school of keyboard playing. He is quoted as saying ‘ I fear that my works for keyboard will be performed in ages yet untold by pianists, if that is what they will be called, in a dry and artificial manner resulting from attempts to sound like a harpsichord. This is absolute nonsense and contrary to logic.’
    Bach continues: ‘ The time I spent at the piano was nonetheless delightful, mainly on account of the novel device known as the damper pedal, which facilitates a truly beautiful sonority whilst in fact aiding clarity of counterpoint. In short, to play my works without pedal, is mere sterile pedantry – let this be known clearly. It also allowed the free addition of bass octaves and a tasteful legato. Another facet of this new instrument is that it dispenses with many of the questionable ornaments which serve merely to accentuate the relatively feeble sustaining power of the harpsichord. I would say the future performers of my works upon the piano should consider themselves free to repeat notes at pedal-points as desired and to omit ornaments which are only suited to the harpsichord – all this according to good taste, of course.
    It is one of the few regrets of my later years that I will not live to see the full development of this superior and magnificent instrument, which is to the harpsichord as the printing-press is to the quill.’

    This is a historical reference that should be posted in all piano studios.