At times, this recital felt just plain wrong, almost voyeuristic. It had a purgative, deeply personal flavour to it that had been absent from András Schiff’s performance of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, five days and Hurricane Sandy prior. Particularly in the second half Schiff’s playing was more overtly emotional, slightly more idiosyncratic, and, remarkably given the standards of concentration on display in the previous concert, even more intense. If anything, it was an even finer achievement than his performance of the first book.

András Schiff © Sheila Rock
András Schiff
© Sheila Rock

The second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier is very different to the first. The gap in dates of composition – nearly two decades, give or take revisions to both books – is immediately evident in the complexity of fugal subjects and their elaborations. Some are long, seemingly impossible to integrate, and yet they are worked out more fully than mortal imagination permits; others are curt, fragmented, motivic cells from which Bach creates gigantic structures. The preludes too, seem more confidently designed. Some, like the B flat major, seem inordinately stretched-out, and most are, unlike in the first book, longer than their fugues, complete in many instances with repeats of two separate panels. Performed as a book, there is less of a clear progression from the dainty innocence of C major to the brooding darkness of B minor; certainly the colour schemes that Schiff argues for (which I noted in my review of the first book) seem less applicable here. The dividing lines of the great stile antico fugues of the first book, which, broadly speaking, come every fourth pair, are also absent. So, as we asked with the first book, what kind of journey is this? Is it a journey at all?

Schiff did not attempt to integrate this second book to the extent he managed with the first. There was still, however, a sense of conclusion to his final three pairs, the B major fugue providing the emotional end point. The B minor pair became a rabid afterword, performed with Beethovenian intensity by Schiff at a much quicker pace than the comparatively languid treatment this finale usually receives. It’s important to note Schiff’s choice of encore, though: the C major pair from the first book. It received an appropriate laugh from the 92Y audience, but the circular inference was a good counterpoint to the finality of the two books in performance.

For this second book Schiff took a riskier approach. He has never been a bland pianist, and although his early Bach was perhaps on the mannered side he now seems to have found a happy medium. If not played as a 24, these preludes and fugues worked finely as pairs. Take the D major set, in which an extreme, fluttery prelude employing suave ornamentation and tiny delays led to the simple homage of the remarkably concise fugue. Or the F sharp minor pair, the unutterable personal tragedy of the prelude (reminiscent of the slow movements from the Partitas) zoomed out from for a more panoramic resolution, of sorts, in the fugue. Perhaps nowhere was this more true than in the C sharp minor duo, the fugue – although a piece far removed from the gravity of its first-book brother – providing a fierce resolution to the wandering prelude.

Occasionally this failed to pay off. The G sharp minor prelude exploded with energy, extraordinary in its depiction of something very much at stake, which only made the monotone fugue seem more leaden than it might. The sweet lightness of the E major prelude only underscored a structurally pleasing but rather clumpy fugue. Here, as in the first book and elsewhere in this second (particularly an E flat minor fugue begging to be opened up), I longed for Schiff to underpin his impressive legato touch with the sustaining pedal. Still, his adherence to principle is laudable.

On the whole this was Bach pianism of the highest class and subtlety. Perhaps because of Schiff’s austerity with his right foot, one had a renewed appreciation of the varieties of dexterous touch, as with the playful note lengths in the G major fugue and, more generally, with the attention paid to the methods of creating long-lasting sound in the absence of pedal. Slight slips in the A major and E flat minor preludes were irrelevant in view of the larger feats of memory. This was a fine achievement, and it whets the appetite for the rest of Schiff’s Bach tour over the next two years.