Last week, Hungarian-born British pianist András Schiff performed two marathon Bach concerts at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center -- the complete French Suites and the French Overture on Tuesday, April 9, and all six English Suites on Thursday, April 11.
The second concert consisted of almost an hour and a half of music (four English Suites) without even a moment of applause, followed by the last two, then an encore of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, and wrapped up with a talk session with the pianist and WNYC radio host John Schaefer.
Fifty-nine-year-old Schiff, who always starts his mornings with an hour of Bach (even before breakfast) admitted that the composer probably had no idea anyone would ever play all six of these suites in one concert. Indeed, it seemed like a feat of tremendous concentration and will power; a giant task the cerebral pianist seemed perfect for. While the first English Suite in A major felt slightly scattered, with a sense of rhythm a bit erratic (especially where there was a lot of ornamentation), the other suites followed with mounting gravity, clarity and focus. Playing with the natural weight of his fingers without using his whole arms and shoulders (such is the correct playing style for period instruments), Schiff's sound came out straight and even, with perfect détaché (French for detached, or separated -- in this case, it means the notes of a passage do not flow seamlessly, but are very slightly separated from one another).
Schiff is known as a Bach-player for good reason -- he also plays on period instruments, and while he says he could never get very attached to the harpsichord, he has a clavichord at home and that is his favorite period instrument. That explains his great ear for slight nuances; for the clavichord is the most delicate of keyboard instruments -- small, light and portable, it was used more as an instrument for home than a concert instrument, and its sound is so small that a truck passing by the street in front of your house may wipe out its sound. Unlike the harpsichord, and like the modern piano, the clavichord can also play a range of dynamics, allowing for changes in dynamics. The harpsichord plucks at strings, while the clavichord (and the modern piano) hits the strings. While the dynamic range is small, within that limited range, a wealth of expressions (including vibrato) can be found once the ear has become attuned to the sensitive clavichord.
Schiff's feet remained on the floor throughout the concert, eschewing even the slightest usage of pedal. While most pianists do choose to make discreet (hardly noticeable) use of the pedal, Schiff proved that sustaining various melodic lines is perfectly possible by fingers alone.
During the post-performance discussion, Schiff also debated the continuous heightening of pitch -- 440 Hz is the standard for the A above middle C nowadays, but period instrumentalists often play at 415 Hz (which sounds nearly half a tone lower), which was the standard for A in Bach's time. While 440 Hz is supposedly the standard nowadays, many musicians play slightly higher, especially in Europe -- the Vienna Philharmonic starts a concert at 444 Hz and finishes at 450 Hz, joked Schiff. He said he would like to see a return to a slightly lower pitch, and made a case for it to French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez one day: "In the Magic Flute it would make the Queen of the Night's life much easier," he had said. "It might be hard for the Queen of the Night but it makes Sarastro's life easier," Boulez replied chaffingly. "He killed my argument! I was very angry with him," Schiff laughed.