Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra
Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869 – András Schiff

World renowned Bach interpreter András Schiff performs the entirety of Johann Sebastian Bach's massive keyboard opus, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 on a Steinway Model D grand piano. Recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall on September 7th 2017 as Prom 73.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-tempered Clavier consists of two collections (book I / II) of preludes and fugues (P/F), each book going through all "tones and semitones", thus climbing the 12 semitones from C to B, and presenting a P/F for each tone in both major and minor key, making it 24 P/F per book, and in total 48 P/F ("the 48").

As is also well known, Johann Sebastian Bach completed the first book in 1722 when he was "Hofkapellmeister" at the court in Köthen, while the second book (which technically has not been named "Well-tempered Clavier book II" by Bach) was completed much later when he was holding the post of "Thomaskantor" in Leipzig. The 2 books thus result from two quite different periods of Bach's life, which is reflected in the character of the 2 books.

The Well-tempered Clavier belongs to the major musical achievements of the Baroque age in Europe, and it is until today an intellectual challenge for musicians and listeners alike, as well as a deep and seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration. Johann Sebastian Bach, like no other composer in musical history, managed to combine rather abstract and formal concepts, such as counterpoint, fugues and canons, with an incredible sense of beauty. The variety and depth of the pieces, the mastership with which Bach uses popular musical forms and types of the time (such as italian concerto, trio sonata, ricercare, and many others) and transforms them into something unique and entirely sophisticated, provides a vast playing field for musicians to both learn from and express sublime musical thoughts.  

Source: bachwelltemperedclavier.org

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

♪ The Well-Tempered Clavier I / Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I, BWV 846-869 (1722)

i. Prelude in C major [01:06]* and Fugue in C major [02:48], BWV 846
ii. Prelude in C minor [04:40] and Fugue in C minor [06:20], BWV 847
iii. Prelude in C sharp major [07:58] and Fugue in C sharp major [09:30], BWV 848
iv. Prelude in C sharp minor [11:59] and Fugue in C sharp minor [14:23], BWV 849
v. Prelude in D major [18:34] and Fugue in D major [19:56], BWV 850
vi. Prelude in D minor [21:37] and Fugue in D minor [23:50], BWV 851
vii. Prelude in E flat major [26:15] and Fugue in E flat major [29:58], BWV 852
viii. Prelude in E flat minor [31:38] and Fugue in E flat minor [35:03], BWV 853
ix. Prelude in E major [39:48] and Fugue in E major [41:06], BWV 854
x. Prelude in E minor [42:11] and Fugue in E minor [44:24], BWV 855
xi. Prelude in F major [45:29] and Fugue in F major [46:27], BWV 856
xii. Prelude in F minor [47:47] and Fugue in F minor [49:49], BWV 857
xiii. Prelude in F sharp major [54:17] and Fugue in F sharp major [55:51], BWV 858
xiv. Prelude in F sharp minor [57:42] and Fugue in F sharp minor [58:38], BWV 859
xv. Prelude in G major [1:01:23] and Fugue in G major [1:02:17], BWV 860
xvi. Prelude in G minor [1:05:20] and Fugue in G minor [1:07:28], BWV 861
xvii. Prelude in A flat major [1:09:03] and Fugue in A flat major [1:10:21], BWV 862
xviii. Prelude in G sharp minor [1:12:36] and Fugue in G sharp minor [1:14:04], BWV 863
xix. Prelude in A major [1:16:07] and Fugue in A major [1:17:18], BWV 864
xx. Prelude in A minor [1:19:35] and Fugue in A minor [1:20:31], BWV 865
xxi. Prelude in B flat major [1:24:24] and Fugue in B flat major [1:25:44], BWV 866
xxii. Prelude in B flat minor [1:27:24] and Fugue in B flat minor [1:30:03], BWV 867
xxiii. Prelude in B major [1:32:58] and Fugue in B major [1:33:59], BWV 868
xxiv. Prelude in B minor [1:36:12] and Fugue in B minor [1:41:01], BWV 869

András Schiff, piano

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London, September 7, 2017

(HD 720p)

* Start time of each work

Photos by Chris Christodoulou

A stupendous performance

Sir Andras Schiff performed Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" and transformed the huge and well-filled hall into a bowl of rapt silence

Two years ago Andras Schiff held this auditorium in thrall with a performance of the Goldberg Variations: Now he's done the same with the first book of the same composer's Well-Tempered Clavier, a work never played at a Prom before. Schiff sees these preludes and fugues in terms of colour, beginning with the snow-white innocence of the opening prelude in C major, and culminating in the B minor fugue which for him is in the pitch-black key of death. And on this occasion he abjured his beloved Bösendorfer in favour of a modern Steinway.

There was indeed a crystalline transparency in the first prelude, a metronomic regularity which was in no way mechanical, and for a while he maintained these qualities, playing with a caressing touch and going at an unusually gentle pace, thus allowing unfamiliar effects to emerge. Some of these had bewitching charm – as in the exquisite melody passed between the hands in the sixteenth prelude – while others were bracingly astringent; when virtuosity was called for it was delivered with impeccable control, every note given due weight. Bach's extraordinary stylistic experiments in the fantasias were played as though being essayed for the first time.

Despite its dramatic and emotional restraint – only in the final lament was there naked emotion – this was the most riveting performance of the work I have ever heard, as for two hours Schiff turned the huge and well-filled hall into a bowl of rapt silence. He delivered the endlessly walking line of the final prelude with majestic assurance, and if the gravely enigmatic final fugue denoted death, this was death of an entirely serene kind. It really was stupendous.

Source: Michael Church, September 11, 2017 (independent.co.uk)

There is something timeless about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – intensely spiritual whilst abstract and logical at the same time. Perhaps Hans von Bülow captured the essence best when he canonised The Well-Tempered Clavier as "the Old Testament of Music". For seasoned professionals, this work has symbolised a career summit or "holy grail" of the keyboard repertoire. As Sir András Schiff himself has said "no-one combines the sacred and the secular as Bach does". Schiff is often heralded as one of the finest Bach interpreters of our age; to have such an accolade bestowed on him befits his achievements in both the concert hall and the recording studio.

A late night Prom lent itself to an atmosphere of keen expectation, emanating as it did from a partisan audience, all of them devotees to the original father figure of music, Schiff striding out onto the stage taking a moment to bow to an anticipatory crowd. Once seated and having allowed a brief pause for contemplation, the great pianist launched into the sequence which began with the much-loved Prelude in C major. The warm and meditative tone instantly brought to mind gentle waves rippling across a pond – the sound was intimate, yet spacious in feel – the audience's attention rapt from the start.

Observing Schiff from a short distance, it was clear that he feels very much at home in this music. He radiates a certain economy of movement in his playing style, channelling his focus and energy into the keyboard and thereby negating any necessity to enact dramatic sweeping gestures.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues follow a pattern of major and minor whilst exploring every available key on their journey. They were composed with pedagogical purposes in mind and certainly carry an almost mathematical precision about then. As a result of this conception, there is little call for musical decoration or dramatic effect save for the occasional trill or similar ornamentation (at least not in the sense of what we would later observe in the Romantic age à la Chopin, Schumann, Brahms for example). Despite the fairly constant dynamics throughout the work, Schiff's masterly interpretations ensured that there was much to admire – he employed relatively frugal use of pedalling, whilst harmonised were crisp in their syncopation.

Bach set a clear and ground-breaking precedent with his creation; one needs only take note of the later sets of Preludes from Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, yet despite the lack of emotional fireworks on display, Schiff's amazing accomplishment here was to somehow wring from the music contrasting moods from within that small space. There was time for despairing sadness, solace and lively baroque dances all neatly compressed within the precise and methodical style for which Bach will always be known.

Felix Mendelssohn is often (rightly) credited as the man who resurrected Bach's music (and reputation along with it) in the 1830s. Whilst this might be true of the old master's choral and orchestral oeuvre, the truth is that Bach's sheer importance – not to mention relevance – to keyboard players (both to amateur students as well as the aspiring musician) never really went away after his death in 1750. This may well be thanks in part to a rich network of hand copied manuscripts (Mozart is said to have kept a copy of Book I, whilst Beethoven is said to have played the full set by the age of 11.)

It became clear from observing Schiff's assured technique at the piano that this work had brought to countless future generations of keyboard players the modern technique of fingering, training the digits into a kind of kinetic memory. Schiff's fingers looked rather if they had been computer programmed, such was the flawlessness with which he traversed the keys of his Steinway.

In the end, I was left with no doubt that Schiff is almost certainly the standard bearer for the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach – quite possibly the best since Glenn Gould. According to the evening's programme notes, Schiff will return to perform Book II at next year's Proms. Judging by the warm and respectful admiration of the late-night crowd, there will be a great deal of pleasure at news of the great man’s return in 2018.

Source: Aaron Davies, September 10, 2017 (bachtrack.com)

More photos

See also

Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Evgeni Koroliov (Bachfest Leipzig 2008)

Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 – Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff, Robert Davies – Dunedin Consort, John Butt

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