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Review: Andras Schiff plays Bach preludes, fugues masterfully

Andras Schiff plays the first book of Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier' beautifully at Walt Disney Concert Hall. On Wednesday, he'll play the second book.

October 18, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Pianist Andras Shiff performs Bach's Goldberg Variations at Disney Hall, Sunday, May 9, 2004.
Pianist Andras Shiff performs Bach's Goldberg Variations at Disney… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

This review has been updated. See note below.

András Schiff is the Master.

Wednesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he played the first book of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." A book it is. A Bach bible. Or maybe, devout Lutheran though Bach was, a Bach Torah, something to be not just studied, but argued over, interpreted and re-interpreted generation after generation by master after master. Then again it might be a Buddhist scripture, exploring the intricate interworking of the universe.

One thing is obvious: There can be no last word on these 24 preludes and fugues, one in each key, major and minor, or on the 24 in the second book, which Schiff will play in Disney Hall next Wednesday. There is no single essence, but essences. Schiff's mastery, in what is without question the most illuminating and moving and beautiful piano performance I've heard this year, is to reveal that plural.

Andras Schiff: A review of pianist Andras Schiff at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the Oct. 19 Calendar section referred to Schiff at one point leaving the stage when the noisy audience made it hard for him to continue. The review was referring to a Schiff concert at Disney Hall in 2006. —

Wednesday's concert had the quality of ritual. Schiff is 58 but gives the impression of an ageless musical wisdom. He walked very methodically on stage, which was given a peculiar pinkish lighting design this evening. The hall then darkened, with the piano and its player in a circle illumined as if for a shaman.

Schiff's concentration is penetrating and he can get flustered by distractions. In 2006, a noisy Disney Hall audience made it hard for him to continue and he had to briefly leave the stage. He waited a long moment for the proper mood and then began the rolling arpeggios of the famous C-Major prelude. Every piano student knows it. They — we — have all tried to line those repeated half-notes in the bass just right and get the right hand to produce a proper proto-Philip Glass minimalist trance.

Schiff's tempo was quick, and the arpeggios gracefully flowed not like water in a stream but like steam from a spaceship readying for liftoff. The pianist planted his feet on the floor, playing without the use of the pedal, with the exception of the end of the A-Minor fugue, which ends with a sustained bass A. "Clavier," in Bach's time, meant any keyboard instrument at hand, and this fugue was evidently intended for organ.

Schiff released a recording of the "48" (as the two books are often nicknamed by musicians) in 1990 when he had longish, wavy brown hair (now it is gray and frizzy). It seemed at the time, eight years after the death of Glenn Gould, to be a new kind of Bach for the piano — thoughtful and decidedly not eccentric. But in comparison to the way Schiff now plays Bach — he has an essential new recording of the 48 just released on ECM — he was, 22 years ago, overly pianistic.

His newly deepened approach to the "48" is more vocal. Every line sounds sung. The elaborate counterpoint in the fugues requires of a listener the exercising of both sides of the brain to follow Bach's logic and feel his music's emotion. Schiff's great accomplishment with his Bach now is that piano becomes a tool. You can't miss the extreme elegance and beauty of his tone, but there is also the sense of transcending this instrument, which is far more sophisticated than the keyboards of Bach's time.

One could complain about too much piety, what with the darkened hall and Schiff's overpowering vision of these works as a dramatic entity. Schiff often elided the end of a fugue with the beginning of a new prelude, a concluding major chord sinking delicately but still theatrically into the minor for the next chapter. He is not the first pianist to treat the "48" as a unified epic, but that is a concept far from Bach's mind and can be suffocating.

Yet for all Schiff's asceticism, he also conveys a sly hedonism. He may transcend the piano, but he still retains a tone that is sweet and, despite the forgoing of the sustaining pedal, corpulent. His Bach conveys physical delight. The sense I had was of heightened awareness. It felt as though the Disney folks had pumped pure, intoxicating oxygen into the room.

This epic finished with the B-Minor Prelude and Fugue, the most serious and religious in Book 1. Schiff took a determined approach to the chromatically tortuous prelude, as if walking undeterred through a minefield. The slow four-part fugue was a revelation of something for which words will not suffice.

Please don't let the Book 2, next Wednesday, pass you by. Plus, you can kill two birds with one stone by dropping into the Disney shop and taking care of early Christmas shopping. Schiff's new "Well-Tempered Clavier" recording is the gift for the people whose spiritual well-being matters most.

András Schiff, Bach Keyboard Cycle II, Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Wed.; tickets, $54.50-$109; (323) 850-2000 or

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