András Schiff's Lifelong Marriage to J.S. Bach

“Every day of my life, I start with playing Bach, usually for about an hour, sometimes even before breakfast! It’s like taking care of your inner hygiene. There is something very pure about it.”

As a lifelong Bachophile. I’ve loved Glenn Gould for about as long as I can remember. (Will we ever see the Crazy Keyboardin’ Canadian’s like again?  I doubt it.)

During my college years, however, I realized that another pianist was mounting a serious challenge to the once-though unassailable post  of “Most Beloved Bach Keyboardist:” Andras Schiff. In addition to being about as close to Gould’s technically proficiency as humanly possible, Schiff brings a wonderful warmth and gentleness to Bach’s works — traits not always found in Gould’s breakneck virtuosity. He is also a far more successful interpreter of non-Bach composers (such as Mozart and Schubert). And his numerous lecturesinterviews, and master classes mark him as both an insightful teacher and affectionate pupil of music.

All facts which help to explain why this NPR piece makes me so happy:

Schiff needed to improve his dexterity and thought this was the only way. He soon realized, though, that he didn’t need what he called “those silly exercises” after he found J.S. Bach.

Schiff has such an intimate relationship with these works, hearing him play them is like getting an inside view of a wondrously successful lifelong marriage. While there is no gratuitous sentiment, every gesture is suffused with loving tenderness. He plays with both delicacy and directness.

There is even a kind of personal secret code Schiff has developed with these works, like pet names shared between a loving older couple. Bach carefully laid out the preludes and fugues in both books of his Well-Tempered Clavier: 24 of each, in every possible key, major and minor. Schiff affectionately thinks of each piece as having not just a key but a particular character that he sees as color. D major is a bright, burnished brassy gold. A minor is “painful, as red as blood can be.” C major is the pure innocence of white. B minor is black, the color of death.

The Prelude & Fugue in C (from the Well-Tempered Clavier) included on that post serves as overwhelming evidence that this “lifelong marriage” has been a resounding success. But there’s a lot more evidence where that came from (such as this wonderful YouTube playlist, featuring the complete recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier).

Attribution(s): "Schiff at the Piano" by Steve Bowbrick via Visual hunt (CC BY).