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Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II / Andras Schiff

Release Date: 09/25/2012 
Label:  Ecm   Catalog #: 001733702  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  András Schiff
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Well-Tempered Clavier (complete) András Schiff (pn) ECM 001733702 (4 CDs: 246:23)

András Schiff is an old hand at Bach, having recorded most of the composer’s major solo and concerted keyboard works, including a previous WTC for Decca back in the 1980s. Over the course of reviewing numerous artists performing Bach’s keyboard works on piano, I’ve consistently cited András Schiff, along Read more with Angela Hewitt and Craig Sheppard, as my touchstones in this repertoire. So a new complete WTC from Schiff aroused great expectations, which, happily, were not disappointed.

Many artists, on returning to a work essayed 25 years earlier, would mellow their approach and slow their tempos, but Schiff isn’t having any of that. It’s clear from these new readings that he has thoroughly rethought Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues and now presents them faster and with sharper rhythmic pointing than previously. Instead of plastering the page with comparative timings between the old and new versions for all 48 preludes and fugues, let me just display an abbreviated table of the very few exceptions where the timings for Schiff II are either slower than, or identical to, Schiff I:

Book I Schiff I Schiff II

E Minor 3:18 3:18

F#-Minor 3:52 3:53

Book II

C Minor 4:33 4:43

C#-Minor 5:56 5:56

F Minor 5:54 5:54

Bb-Major 8:58 9:27

That’s it. In only three of the six numbers, identified in bold, is Schiff II slower than Schiff I, in one case by just one second, in another by 10 seconds, and in the third by a more pronounced 29 seconds. In the other three non-bolded numbers, Schiff II is unchanged from Schiff I. That leaves 42 out of 48 preludes and fugues, all of which—I repeat, all of them—are now faster, and in some cases astonishingly so. For example, Schiff I took 6:17 for the Prelude and Fugue in Bb-Minor from Book I; Schiff II now takes 5:25, an acceleration of 42 seconds. Even more stunning is the speedup in the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor from Book II—Schiff I, 7: 03; Schiff II, 5:48, a difference of 1:15.

But it’s not merely that Schiff is more animated in his new version, he’s also more open to spontaneity and to the playfulness that distinguishes Angela Hewitt’s Bach. Any complaints that Schiff’s Decca WTC was stiff and cautious can now be laid to rest. The pianist’s long experience with Bach seems to have loosened his former reserve while at the same time tightening his technical command. It’s as if Schiff’s confidence and comfort level have reached the point where he finally feels at ease in addressing Bach with the familiar German Du instead of the more formal Sie.

Some may seek the greater sense of ennoblement that comes from lingering over the concluding B-Minor Prelude and Fugue from Book I, but we should not forget that these are pieces written to demonstrate a pragmatic technical point. They are not spiritual meditations in the manner of Bach’s chorale preludes, and dwelling on the slow numbers in an effort to make them sound deeply devotional can have the opposite effect, making them instead sound self-indulgent and pretentious. Schiff strikes just the right balance, giving the slow-paced preludes and fugues their due while resisting affectation. Schiff’s fast-paced movements are brisk and rhythmically smart, with the left hand engaging the right equally in contrapuntal play while always bringing out the fundamental bass notes that underpin the harmonic framework. Of the many available piano versions of the Well-Tempered Clavier , András Schiff’s latest is definitely a top choice. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

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Works on This Recording

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846-869 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1722; Cöthen, Germany 
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, BWV 870-893 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1738-1742; Leipzig, Germany 

Featured Sound Samples

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Fugue no 13 in F sharp
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Prelude no 21 in B flat

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  11 Customer Reviews )
 This is Bach for people with no musical education January 9, 2017 By M. Hutton (Woodbury, TN) See All My Reviews "At one time I had this complete set, but somehow or other three of the disks went missing. Really happy to have them all again, and Andras Schiff is in my opinion the most sensitive interpreter of Bach's keyboard works. Listing (how many times?) to that one forlorn disk that remained when the others walked, I realized how contemporary Bach's playing occasionally is. Not necessarily a compliment, just a fact." Report Abuse
 A Perfect Gift April 2, 2013 By Karen W. (Cliff, NM) See All My Reviews "After hearing Andras Schiff interviewed by Fred Child on APR, I knew that his recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier would be the perfect gift for a painter in my family, who plays the piano in his studio to amplify his work--primarily about color and light--and it was. He listens to it every day, just as Schiff, as a teenager, learned to exercise with Bach instead of scales, melding beauty and discipline in his daily practice--a kind of musical floss for one's internal hygiene, as Andras said, 'Because it is so pure.'" Report Abuse
 Better the Second Time Around? March 31, 2013 By Anthony B. (Atlanta, GA) See All My Reviews "In this case yes. Schiff I and II are anodynes. His first recording of WTC I and II were very good but a bit too sedate. They needed more zest. His second is filled with far more spirit and far more light. It is one of the very best recorded sets I've ever heard. If you care about this music you need to buy this set. It's a real endorphin pump." Report Abuse
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