András Schiff flawlessly articulates The Well Tempered Clavier

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A Vancouver Recital Society production. At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday, October 5

This is modern life: one minute you’re six miles in the air, staring down at Mount Shasta’s rusty caldera; the next you’re in a concert hall, nodding gently to the intricate counterpoint of the 18th century’s finest composer.

The highs were greater on the ground.

That said, I can’t recommend rushing from your flight—delayed for hours thanks to some sort of military exercise—to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, suitcase in hand. After sprinting from the plane, fidgeting through customs, and springing for a $40 cab ride, I was too fried to take many notes during András Schiff’s performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

Was it the “Prelude and Fugue in D major” or the subsequent “Prelude and Fugue in D minor” that found the Hungarian-born pianist skittering over the keys with the agility of an acrobat? Until Canada Post finally coughs up my copy of Schiff’s recent WTC recording, I’m not going to be able to answer that question to my own satisfaction, much less yours.

What I can tell you, though, is that there’s no better way to hear this music than in Schiff’s company, live or virtual. The pianist himself approaches Bach’s score with a kind of synesthetic wonder. “To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours,” he wrote in his program notes. “Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence and therefore C-major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in B-minor which is the key to death.…Of course this is a very personal interpretation and each of you may have a different opinion.”

As it happened, I didn’t encounter the shades of yellow, orange, ochre, blue, green, pink, and red Schiff also claims to hear in The Well Tempered Clavier. Instead, I experienced his concert as a warm bath of subdued delight, an almost two-hour-long immersion in Bach’s considered mastery.

This was no bravura performance, nor was it a steely intellectual dismembering of the score. Instead, it was an intimate dialogue between old friends: Schiff probing Bach for his inner truths and Bach pushing Schiff into the refined articulation of his own response.

That articulation, by the way, was flawless. Schiff has become almost notorious for eschewing the use of the sustain pedal when performing 18th-century music. First deployed in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, from 1801, the effect was unavailable in Bach’s time and thus, the pianist argues, inappropriate. Schiff’s ability to elicit varied tonal colours from the Vancouver Recital Society’s Steinway didn’t suffer, however. His hands alone are fantastically expressive, and he had no trouble convincing his audience that The Well-Tempered Clavier is the source from which most subsequent keyboard music has sprung.

Everything from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s elongated melodies to Frédéric Chopin’s showy jetés to Art Tatum’s discursive jazz existed here first, in more than inchoate form. I was reminded of all three during Schiff’s performance, but most of all I was convinced that this was the perfect meeting of music and musician. Should he return to play Book 2, don’t miss it.

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