Andras 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 lectures, interviews, 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 irrefutable evidence that this “lifelong marriage” has been a resounding success. But there’s a lot more evidence where that came from.

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Image Credit: The Guardian’s review of Schiff’s 2012 Well-Tempered recording

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • pianogirl88

    Thank you for introducing me to the artistry of David Fray ~ I suspect I’ll be ordering these concertos on amazon this evening, and will certainly post the video on my FB page! My piano teacher always maintained that you could take all the music written since the time of JSB, do away with the manuscripts, and there would be enough musical truths in Bach’s music to recreate everything that came after his genius light went out. A lot of musicians don’t agree with that, but they are entitled to be wrong!

  • Joseph Susanka

    I can only take some of the credit for the Fray link, PianoGirl88. My father is mostly to blame, really. He knows I’m a staunch Gould fan, and Fray shows some striking visual/performance similarities to his Canadian predecessor. So, he passed it along, and I was fascinated by it. (Another interesting tidbit: that Fray video is directed by Bruno Monsaingeon, a classical violinist-turned-director who created a number of films featuring Glenn Gould, including one of his 1981 Goldberg recordings.)

  • pianogirl88

    Interesting info about the director of the Goldberg film. I probably need to watch that one of these days! :~)

  • pianogirl88

    PS…I just posted a video of Brian playing Ravel at a music festival in Cartagena last year…

  • Fr. Hildebrand Garceau, O. Praem.

    Surely you have seen the quirky yet musically rich “32 Short Films on Glenn Gould” which came out about 20 years ago. A must-see for every Gould fan and an award winner.

    • Joseph Susanka

      I have had the pleasure of watching it, Father. And I agree; a must-see. Very quirky, as you say. But how could a film about Glenn Gould be anything but quirky? (“45 Seconds and a Chair” was my favorite, I think. And Colm Feore was fantastic throughout.)