Bach at the keyboard: András Schiff’s latest gem

It was my friend Nick James who introduced me to the pianistic brilliance of András Schiff, pointing out that the playing I’d hear on the birthday gift he’d bought me – the Hungarian’s 2001 concert recording of the Goldberg Variations – would be rather different from Glenn Gould’s renowned recordings of Bach’s masterpiece. Certainly, I soon came to love that CD, and bought a number of subsequent Schiff albums (including his 2011 recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier). I’ve also, more recently, gotten into the habit of trying to catch him live when he performs in London. So it was inevitable that I’d be keen to hear Schiff’s latest release: JS Bach – Clavichord.

Whereas he has hitherto been acclaimed for his interpretations of Bach on a modern grand piano, the new album finds Schiff performing on a 2003 copy of a clavichord made by Jacob Specken in 1743; it is, as explained in a booklet essay by Joris Potvlieghe, who made the replica, an example of the kind of unfretted clavichord Bach himself would have known. It’s thought that the composer was particularly fond of the instrument, which differs from a harpsichord in that the strings are struck rather than plucked; this means that a musician playing the clavichord can effect subtle changes in volume, create a kind of vibrato, and generally shift between staccato and brief sustain. The sound produced resembles that of neither the harpsichord nor the piano; indeed, Potvlieghe writes that ‘the low load of the strings on the soundboard results in a charming, expressive sound, rather like that of the lute.’ Well, yes… though to my ears it is still recognisably the sound of a keyboard instrument.

Whatever, the clavichord’s soft dynamics make for a pleasingly intimate and transparent sound which, as Schiff points out in his notes for the album, is ‘perfectly suited to the drawing room, for making music in one’s home… it’s only meant to be heard by the player, or at most by a handful of listeners.’ (Needless to say, the characteristically lucid ECM sound suits this purpose perfectly.) Accordingly, for the two CDs, Schiff has selected two Bach sets notable, perhaps, for their overall modesty and deceptive simplicity: the 15 two-part Inventions, and the 15 three-part Sinfonias; there are also the Four Duets and the Ricercar à 3 from The Musical Offering. Schiff’s playing is excellent, as one would expect: intelligent, elegant, nuanced and sensitive. 

The tempo is generally measured, with occasional speedier moments; notwithstanding a mood of quiet introspection, the spirit of dance is seldom far away. But for this relatively unsophisticated listener, perhaps the most immediately engaging and impressive pieces are those which bookend the recital. To open, the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother is richly coloured, highly evocative and utterly charming; to close, the wonderful Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue allows Schiff to move into somewhat denser textures which, thanks to the gentle tone of the instrument, still manage to feel like a distinctly supple, personal form of music-making. (Schiff says he starts every day at home by playing Bach – previously on the piano, now on the clavichord – and it shows. You can find him talking about the clavichord below.) In short, this is just the kind of music to be listened to, quietly, at home.

András Schiff’s JS Bach – Clavichord is released by ECM. You can sample further brief extracts from the album at the ECM website. Photo at top of Schiff at Wigmore Hall in May 2019 taken by the author.

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