Review of the recital on 21 July 2018, by Sir András Schiff, of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, by Johann Sebastian Bach, given at the Mauritiuskirche, Saanen
The 1604 St Mauritius Church in Saanen, with its vaulted timber ceiling and clear acoustics, provided a well-chosen venue for Schiff’s masterly recital of J. S. Bach’s second half of his collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues, composed in all 24 major and minor keys. These compositions are regarded, today, as some of the most seminal works in the keyboard repertoire.
Seated before his sumptuously-polished, pyramid mahogany 280 Vienna Concert piano, newly made by Bösendorfer, Sir András, in only his second foray on this instrument, treated his audience with a flawless and moving performance of the more nuanced and complex set of preludes and fugues to those, often similar, that the composer wrote in 1722, 20 years earlier.
With his A tuned to a pitch of 443 Hz, the Mauritiuskirche resonated to the intense chromatic banquet of counterpoint and fugue, pure and articulate, exploring the depth and subtleties of the Bösendorfer and honoring his privileged audience with an emotional and spiritual experience: inspiration on a higher plane than can usually be found by normal mortals.
In myriad interviews, Schiff has revealed that he has played Bach every day for about an hour since the age of seventeen, and that, as an aspiring pianist, intent on improving his dexterity, he eschewed the conventional études all learners are ordered to endure by their music teachers, for these Bach masterpieces.
Schiff’s focused intensity matched the intimidating rapidity of his keystrokes, which gave the illusion, at times, that he was only watching his fingers unfurl the music of their own volition, while the maestro sat quietly surveying his handiwork, with a serene countenance.
Bach rarely included tempo or phrase markings in his music (he did, however, leave explanations of his ornaments in a teaching manual for one of his gifted sons), which magnifies the role of the interpreter. Schiff’s careful study of his subject, coupled with his inspired visualization, sees Bach’s various tonalities as colors, and he rewarded the audience with a spectacular, multi-hued tour de force that was at once deeply human, and upliftingly spiritual.
I could not help reflecting that even the visionary Yehudi Menuhin, Gstaad’s great benefactor, would have been captured and moved by this performance of such divine music.
For the Inquisitive
What is a clavier? Why should it be well-tempered?
In the musical cities of Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750), ‘clavier’ (keyboard) was a collective word, meaning all the keyboard instruments available at the time, including the clavichord, spinet, harpsichord, and pipe organ. Bach first encountered a Gottfried Silbermann fortepiano circa 1736, but preferred the accepted instrument of performance, the harpsichord, which plucks the strings with shaved quills, to the upstart percussion piano, which strikes the strings with a gloved hammer. He found the new piano unbalanced in the higher registers while requiring a heavier touch. Later, after more exposure to the new ideas and after many innovations and improvements, he helped sell pianos for Silbermann, acting as their agent in Leipzig.
“Well tempered” simply describes a schematic for the tuning of Baroque instruments to suit the keys and tonality of the period, allowing for greater tuning flexibility than that allowed by today’s rigid 12-tone ‘equal temperament’. It was and remains common that players on period instruments may have to retune between works being performed to obtain the best temperament for the individual key of the music being performed but this ‘tuning’ debate is a continuing and complex forum for the cognoscenti!