Prom 73: A Bach masterclass from András Schiff

There is something timeless about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – intensely spiritual whilst abstract and logical at the same time. Perhaps Hans von Bülow captured the essence best when he canonised The Well-Tempered Clavier as “the Old Testament of Music.” For seasoned professionals, this work has symbolised a career summit or “holy grail” of the keyboard repertoire. As Sir András Schiff himself has said “no-one combines the sacred and the secular as Bach does.” Schiff is often heralded as one of the finest Bach interpreters of our age; to have such an accolade bestowed on him befits his achievements in both the concert hall and the recording studio.

A late night Prom lent itself to an atmosphere of keen expectation, emanating as it did from a partisan audience, all of them devotees to the original father figure of music, Schiff striding out onto the stage taking a moment to bow to an anticipatory crowd. Once seated and having allowed a brief pause for contemplation, the great pianist launched into the sequence which began with the much-loved Prelude in C major. The warm and meditative tone instantly brought to mind gentle waves rippling across a pond – the sound was intimate, yet spacious in feel – the audience’s attention rapt from the start.

Observing Schiff from a short distance, it was clear that he feels very much at home in this music. He radiates a certain economy of movement in his playing style, channelling his focus and energy into the keyboard and thereby negating any necessity to enact dramatic sweeping gestures.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues follow a pattern of major and minor whilst exploring every available key on their journey. They were composed with pedagogical purposes in mind and certainly carry an almost mathematical precision about then. As a result of this conception, there is little call for musical decoration or dramatic effect save for the occasional trill or similar ornamentation (at least not in the sense of what we would later observe in the Romantic age à la Chopin, Schumann, Brahms for example. Despite the fairly constant dynamics throughout the work, Schiff’s masterly interpretations ensured that there was much to admire – he employed relatively frugal use of pedalling, whilst harmonised were crisp in their syncopation.

Bach set a clear and ground-breaking precedent with his creation; one needs only take note of the later sets of Preludes from Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, yet despite the lack of emotional fireworks on display, Schiff’s amazing accomplishment here was to somehow wring from the music contrasting moods from within that small space. There was time for despairing sadness, solace and lively baroque dances all neatly compressed within the precise and methodical style for which Bach will always be known.

Felix Mendelssohn is often (rightly) credited as the man who resurrected Bach’s music (and reputation along with it) in the 1830s. Whilst this might be true of the old master’s choral and orchestral oeuvre, the truth is that Bach’s sheer importance – not to mention relevance – to keyboard players (both to amateur students as well as the aspiring musician) never really went away after his death in 1750. This may well be thanks in part to a rich network of hand copied manuscripts (Mozart is said to have kept a copy of Book I, whilst Beethoven is said to have played the full set by the age of 11.)

It became clear from observing Schiff’s assured technique at the piano that this work had brought to countless future generations of keyboard players the modern technique of fingering, training the digits into a kind of kinetic memory. Schiff’s fingers looked rather if they had been computer programmed, such was the flawlessness with which he traversed the keys of his Steinway.

In the end, I was left with no doubt that Schiff is almost certainly the standard bearer for the keyboard works of JS Bach – quite possibly the best since Glenn Gould. According to the evening’s programme notes, Schiff will return to perform Book II at next year’s Proms. Judging by the warm and respectful admiration of the late-night crowd, there will be a great deal of pleasure at news of the great man’s return in 2018.