András Schiff was one of the first pianists of the digital era to record the complete works of Bach, back in the 1980s. Now, older and wiser, Schiff is embarking upon a tour demonstrating how far his interpretations have progressed over nearly three decades. This 92Y concert was the start of a two-year series which takes in New York’s major concert halls: the English and French Suites at Alice Tully Hall, concertos with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher, and the Partitas and Goldberg Variations at Carnegie Hall.

András Schiff
András Schiff

There are prodigious technical demands to playing Bach, even if, as in some of Mozart’s piano music, it sometimes doesn’t sound like it. More difficult, these works and especially the Well-Tempered Clavier are every pianist’s daily bread, however lay the pianist. So, writing as a deeply amateur player who has hacked away at these works for years, listening to this music is different to, say, hearing a Rachmaninov concerto. You have an idea of what your ideal performance of the concerto would sound like, but the comparisons with the mind’s eye (or ear) are somehow more intense when the music has been under your fingers. Likewise, hearing pianists play Bach leaves the listener in an odd position. You feel like you’re hearing something that shouldn’t be so public, a private communion of sorts. These works are so personal, and yet it is so often so hard to set Bach’s genius aside and focus on the pianist.

In concert, there are broader questions to answer with what Hans von Bülow called music’s Old Testament. How are pianists to divide this first book of 24 preludes and fugues, progressing through the keys? They were probably not written to be performed as a cycle, but sound in practice so much like one. Perhaps six groups of four, with an applause break after each of the stile antico fugues, as Angela Hewitt has suggested in the past? 24 all in a row, for an exhausting but vital experience? Two halves of twelve, as Schiff went for here? And what kind of journey are we to embark upon with that deceptively simple arpeggiated first prelude? Bach as period piece, focused on dance rhythms and the music’s past? Or a trek of tonal progression through music’s future, with Bach’s music seen directly through the eyes of Schoenberg, as with Maurizio Pollini?

In a programme note, interviews, and successfully in performance, Schiff has urged a rethinking of the Well-Tempered Clavier in terms of colours. Schiff’s progression from the white innocence of C major to the black chromaticism and Schoenbergian labyrinth of B minor makes good sense (particularly in drawing the comparison between the final fugue and the opening of the B minor Mass). The yellows and oranges he finds between C minor and D minor, or the pinks and reds of A flat major and A minor, might be more difficult for some of us to approach.

Just as interestingly, Schiff is attempting to draw out colours from his Steinway without deploying its most descriptive tools: the pedals. Bach obviously did not have a sustaining pedal at his disposal, so Schiff’s approach makes sense from something of a historically-informed standpoint. However, if the tools of the modern piano are eschewed, the point of using one at all is brought into question – and one cannot but wonder what could have been.

Abstaining from the pedals brings clarity at the expense of legato, and although the principle might be risky in lesser hands, it perfectly matched Schiff’s overall conception of Bach as Bach. These were readings of individual pieces rather more extreme than on his new recording, whether that was in the delicacy of the C minor fugue, the pointing of the gigue-like E major fugue, or the brutal staccato of the G minor fugue. Pedal choice aside, there was nothing austere about Schiff’s Bach, as demonstrated by the dreamy shifts through transformations in the C sharp minor fugue, the improvisatory quality of the G major prelude, the wit of the A major fugue, or the furious speed and gripping impulsiveness of the A minor pair.

Schiff was attentive to Bach’s future, particularly in the Chopinesque prelude in B flat major, the dissonance of the B flat minor lament, or the Schoenbergian struggles of the climactic B minor (through tonal doubt in its twelve-tone row, faith). Yet there was plenty to enjoy in a purely Baroque sense too, particular in light but telling ornamentation in the D and F major pairs. Just occasionally one longed for the pedal to lend a less disjunctive line (the B flat minor prelude plodded unnecessarily), or for greater intensity and variation in more sedate preludes (especially a drowsy F sharp minor). Yet this was Bach playing of the highest quality and depth of thought. Book two, on Thursday night, promises to be equally fascinating.