András Schiff Goes Bach to Basics with Well-Tempered Clavier

Sunday, September 30, 2012

András Schiff András Schiff (Nadia F. Romanini/ECM Records)

It's been an eventful season for J.S. Bach's keyboard music, with the recent 80th birthday celebration for the late Glenn Gould putting his celebrated recordings of the Goldberg Variations and Art of Fugue back in the spotlight. Whether coincidental or not, Hungarian pianist András Schiff is returning to Bach with a new recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the iconic two-volume set of 24 preludes and fugues in every key. 

This is Schiff's second foray into the Well-Tempered Clavier, his first coming in 1985, just three years after Gould's death. By that point, Schiff was in his early 30s and well on his way to becoming a major-league Bach interpreter. He had finished third at the 1975 Leeds piano competition when he daringly chose to play Bach's cerebral Keyboard Concerto in D minor rather than a big, showy concerto by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. In the decades since, he has made multiple recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Partitas, while also putting his stamp on generous swaths of Mozart, Schubert and Schumann.

In an age when many pianists favor quirky Bach performances, Schiff’s latest readings are straightforward, direct and highly focused. Unlike many in the post-Gould generation, Schiff doesn’t overstate his slurs and articulations, calling attention to them, nor does he favor extreme tempo choices. This can lower the performance's interpretive profile, to be sure, but it also gives the set a natural poise, elegance and clarity of texture.

Schiff will perform the complete Well-Tempered Clavier 92nd St. Y this fall, offering Book 1 on Oct. 27 and Book 2 on Nov. 1. The performances inaugurate a multiseason Bach Project, which will feature solo and orchestral performances in various cities as well. 

The Well-Tempered Clavier
András Schiff
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Comments [2]

Les from Miami, Florida

Today (7 October 2012), Mr. Schiff plays "The Well-tempered Clavier" Book I. in San Francisco. On the Orchestra's website (, there's a 14-minute video in which Mr. Schiff explains why he plays the work on the piano (the many appogiaturas being more cleanly articulated), as well as what Prelude and Fugue was definitely conceived with the organ in mind, as well as many other enlightenments. Mr. Schiff illustrates his examples on the Steinway. I urge all who love this work, Bach in general, and all who are fans of Mr. Schiff, to access this. I'm sure you'll be as delighted and fascinated as I am.

Oct. 07 2012 09:50 AM
Michael Meltzer

It is well for the WQXR writer to call the WTC "iconic," which it is, except that for the past 2+ years WQXR has treated the preludes & fugues as though they had some sort of disease, airing them extremely sparingly and even then, in the wee hours.
Suddenly there is a nice, new, expensive multi-disc CD set to sell, and the work becomes our favorite Bach. Fine. Let us hope, though, after the dust clears, that we may also hear the WTC via Gould, Edwin Fischer, Tureck,Landowska and Kirkpatrick at the harpsichord, and the occasional contributions of excerpts from pianists like Sviatislav Richter. They are all wonderful and yearn to be heard, no doubt they helped to educate Mr. Schiff as well in his formative years.
The magnificent archive of WQXR still remains largely untapped.

Oct. 04 2012 10:54 AM

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