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In a Fugue State

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/04/2000 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Andras Schiff (piano)

“legato…should be achieved by the fingers and not by the feet”

Andras Schiff

There is a special necromancy surrounding the WTC. Although each prelude and fugue seems relatively pure and simple, when taken as a totality and presented as compellingly as they were last evening by the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, the pieces take on a mystical quality, transporting their listeners to a higher plane of contemplation and spirituality. Exercises in logic and mathematics produce flights of emotion and delusion in a rare confluence of neurological phenomena that can take an unprepared listener by pleasant surprise. These seemingly innocent keyboard calisthenics, known colloquially as the “48”, have been the center of a whirlwind of debate in recent years as to what is to be considered the proper instrumentation for the most intense communication of the music of Bach. When listening to someone as dedicated and nimble as Schiff, it is hard to come down anywhere but on the side of the moderns.

Each book of the “48” consists of 24 preludes and fugues, each in a different key, the key arranged alphabetically and with major before minor, in true scientific cataloging fashion. However, this obsession with order often makes the transition from one work to another seem jarring musically, since many of these keys are very far apart in the mind’s ear. Two centuries later, Paul Hindemith would compose a piece, the Ludus Tonalis, which arranged similar material (not necessarily of the same high order of artistic value) in the order of the circle of fifths, thereby smoothing some of the original’s rough edges. But in so doing he missed the mission of old Bach’s text, which was to pave the way for music to modulate from one key to another by forging a compromise with the listener. From this day forward, Bach proclaimed, an A flat shall be heard as the same note as a G sharp (the “well-tempering” referred to in the title), so that we all can move about freely in this tonal universe that we have together artificially created (a musical version of the “suspension of disbelief” of Coleridge).

And move about we do with such a great performer as Schiff. His is a literary approach to this music, each individual section a complex short story complete with tension, characterization, denouement and surprise ending. The tempo he chose for the second fugue was insanely rapid and there seemed no way that he could sustain it without mistakes. But his flawlessly breathless performance made instant believers of the sold-out crowd. He is certainly no cheater, hitting every note regardless of value cleanly and without the obfuscation of the pedal. Schiff plays this music in private on the clavichord and is thus sensitive to the delicate phrasing necessary to pull all of this off as music rather than gymnastics and employs the strengths of the modern piano (like Gould without the humming) to illuminate a critical metacrusis (and corresponding appoggiatura) that might otherwise be forever lost in the overtonal stew of the harpsichord.

The process of appreciation at one of these amazing Schiff concerts (he performed three last season at Lincoln Center and will play three this week at Carnegie) seems to be from initial awe at the sheer athleticism of the man to gradual familiarity with his narrative style to total transportation into a dreamy mental condition. The last twenty minutes of the second 12 of Book I was so hypnotic that I have to take on faith that the solid technique remained flawless. I was lost somewhere in time and space. The crowd rewarded Mr. Schiff with a pronounced and prolonged standing ovation, he bowing formally like a Magyar cavalier at the court of Franz Joseph. Today is the running of the New York marathon; last evening we were all on taken on a journey at least as arduous but ultimately much more rewarding.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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