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Johann Sebastian Bach Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (Books I and II) (feat. piano: András Schiff) Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Schiff transcends all questions of instrumentation to deliver a pure experience.

Graham Rogers 2013

The two books of preludes and fugues that make up Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier – one complementary pair in every key of the chromatic scale twice over, 48 in total – is one of the greatest achievements in the keyboard repertory.

Debate still rages about exactly which instrument, or instruments, Bach intended them to be played on – clavichord, harpsichord, organ, possibly even an early prototype piano.

But one thing is certain: the composer could never have imagined these quintessentially Baroque works on a modern concert grand.

Yet, for at least a century, Bach's 48 has been the Everest which all great pianists aspire to climb, and many have done so with utterly convincing and profoundly eloquent results.

One such is Hungary-born British pianist András Schiff, whose previous recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier for Decca in the 1980s won many admirers, but who now turns to them again with the advantage of three decades' more experience and maturity.

In his intelligently argued essay accompanying this ECM album, Schiff poses the questions, “Is it permitted to play Bach on an instrument that he couldn't have known? If it isn't, whose permission do we need to ask?”, concluding that the bottom line for all modern Bach performance is simply “good taste”.

This is something that Schiff's latest recording demonstrates in abundance. Nothing is overstated or obtrusive, the music treated with utmost respect.

In the years since his previous version, Schiff has ironed out, or, rather, seamlessly integrated his more contrived idiosyncrasies, resulting in a gloriously homogeneous, completely right-feeling account.

The often-complex multi-layered textures are rendered with crystal clarity, not just because Schiff has determined largely to eschew the sustaining pedal – overused prop of many pianists, a device not yet invented in Bach's time – but also because of his unique brand of restrained pianism and timeless stylistic manner.

For more flamboyant and unashamedly pianistic – but equally valid – versions, we have the likes of Samuel Feinberg's vintage 1959 account, while harpsichord enthusiasts should investigate Christine Schornsheim's 2011 version on Capricco, played on a 1624 Ruckers instrument such as Bach might have known.

Ultimately, Schiff transcends all questions of instrumentation, leaving us with the wonderful impression that we are listening to Bach, pure and simple.

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