Any aspiring keyboard player knows of marvels that can unfold just by taking on any one of J. S. Bach’s ‘48’ Preludes and Fugues, and here was András Schiff embarking on the first twenty-four, with Book II scheduled for next year’s Proms, nearly two hours of numinous counterpoint, poetry and fantasy that both focused and expanded the time-scale. Initially it seemed extraordinary that Schiff was playing all of Book I from memory, but this is music he has lived with most of his life, and his ease of engagement with each Prelude and each Fugue, with endless permutations of style and character to explore, communicated itself instantly.
Bach exposes pianists in strange ways – in recent years both Pollini and Barenboim in Book I were far from treasured experiences, mainly because too much of them got in the way – but here were no ego edges with Schiff. Of course, his personality was behind every detail – it couldn’t be otherwise – but his direct contact with the music was never in doubt. There was no information about the instrument he was playing – for his Goldberg Variations at the 2015 Proms he used a conditioned Steinway – and the upper register sounded attractively un-showy. Schiff is no stranger to ‘period’ instruments, and his sparing use of the sustaining pedal was his most obvious deferral to ‘authentic’ manners – there were, indeed, long stretches when he didn’t use it at all.
Schiff is at his best in projecting Bach’s contrasts of rhetorical gesture and contrapuntal design – which he combined brilliantly in the D-major Fugue; he knows how the music oscillates between profound spirituality – VII & VIII were a quietly epic case in point; he admitted a north German rigour – the C-minor Prelude was notably steady with a very controlled closing flourish; and never far away was a dancelike volatility – the B-flat Prelude (XXI) was a delight, with Schiff seeming merely to brush the keys. He also knows how the ear craves order and how Bach both delivers it and somehow flatters our appreciation of abstract sound in a way charged with feeling. The gentle, rather tragic dialogue Schiff unfolded in the C-sharp minor Prelude (complemented by a ruminative Fugue that barely goes above the stave) was taken infinitely further in the extraordinary introspection of the G-sharp minor Prelude, a mood he wisely broke in the Fugue.
As you might expect from this masterly Bach interpreter, there wasn’t one instance in which he announced the initial Fugue subject with hectoring emphasis – the nearest he got to that was in the litany-like repetitions of the subject, to great effect in the D-minor (VI). Throughout the evening, his playing rippled with detail, minute fluctuations in rhythm and articulation and the closest attention to dynamics and tone, in a way that only suggested that this was one way of playing the music, yet which reeled you in with all the seduction of a defining performance. It was a stupendous achievement, and Schiff, a notorious scourge of audience bad manners, had no cause for concern playing to people who were completely absorbed in what he was drawing from the music.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms