A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

András Schiff / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

In a series of two concerts at Disney Hall, András Schiff delivered an authoritative performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a momentous set of 48 preludes and fugues that cover all major and minor keys over two books.

In Bach’s own words, the Well-Tempered Clavier was intended “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” While these preludes and fugues have indeed served major pedagogical functions over these centuries – not least to Haydn and Mozart themselves – they also explore an extraordinarily wide range of styles and sentiments. In these two concerts, Schiff fully brought out both pedagogical and emotive aspects of the music, not only providing an epitome of a performance style familiar to Bach, but also delivering a profound and highly expressive performance at the same time.

The first concert on Oct. 17 started with the well-known C major Prelude of Book I, where a steady stream of upwards arpeggios – also played as the accompaniment to Gounod’s Ave Maria – traces a progression of harmonies towards its inevitable conclusion. Schiff played this Prelude in a calm, even understated manner, perhaps anticipating the intensifying contrasts to follow. The ensuing C Major Fugue was played with the same gentle lyricism, and, as with all the other fugues, showcased Schiff’s ability to carry multiple fugal voices with exceptional clarity.

In the preludes and fugues that followed, Schiff took the audience through a musical landscape that was full of contrasts. Major key preludes and fugues tended to be gentler and more introspective, whereas minor key ones were darker and at times even frighteningly intense. A gripping example of the latter was Schiff’s rendering of the E minor fugue, with its tempestuous and abrupt staccato ending eliciting gasps from the audience. Throughout the performance, Schiff brought out the contrasts in the music with a rich palette of tone colors and textures, some evoking the fluttering sounds of a harpsichord, and others evoking the rich sonorities of the organ.

While Schiff’s playing was expressive and emotive, he avoided using any classical and romantic pianistic devices, instead working within the confines of Bach’s musical vocabulary. In particular, Schiff did not use the piano’s sustaining pedal at all, even including an essay in the program notes explaining his artistic decision. This astonishing feat – which requires tremendous discipline of the fingers – enabled Schiff to delineate the intertwining voices in the fugues, giving his playing clarity and depth.

Though one might think this impossible, Schiff widened the audience’s imagination even further with his performance of Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier last night. Bach wrote Book II 20 years after Book I, presumably after being exposed to the recently invented piano, and Schiff’s performance seemed to reflect Bach’s expanded palette of textures and tone colors. Many of the preludes and fugues in Book II are more resonant and expansive, and Schiff, perhaps reflecting this change, adopted an assertive and energetic tone right from the beginning C major Prelude and Fugue.

While Schiff infused many of the preludes and fugues with this energy and enthusiasm, he also brought out a new air of suspense and uncertainty in some others. This sense of mystery was particularly tangible in the A minor prelude, which seemed to meander over a broad chromatic landscape before reaching closure in the vigorous and decisive A minor fugue.

As in his previous concert, Schiff painted these musical pictures in Book II while adhering to baroque performance practices and, in particular, without using the sustaining pedal at all. Schiff’s ability to evoke such a diversity of moods and textures within this framework is astounding, and will inspire young musicians to search for the true meaning and intent in Bach’s music.

—Hao Yuan Kueh, Culture Spot LA

Schiff will be back in Disney Hall on April 17, 2013, to continue his Bach keyboard cycle, with the French Suites and the French Overture. Visit www.laphil.com.