Andreas Schiff, Clavichord – J.S. Bach – ECM

by | Feb 23, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

J.S. BACH: Andras Schiff: Clavichord (2 CDs: 38:35; 35:39, complete listing below) (1/27/23) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Recorded in July 2018, this recital celebrates the relationship between Andras Schiff and versatile English musician George Malcolm (1917-1997), the leading harpsichordist of the postwar era, later eclipsed by a new generation devoted to original instruments and a revised notion of “authenticity.” Malcolm visited Budapest in 1967, introducing Schiff to Bach’s especial polyphony via a Bluthner instrument, recommending the modern piano be played “in the right manner.” 

Malcolm presented Schiff with C.P.E. Bach’s treatise on The Art of Playing the Clavier, which Schiff calls “the best and most important book on music.” The clavichord, however, remains a distinct keyboard instrument apart from the piano and the harpsichord, meant for drawing room venues, small salon concerts of intimates who share a need for personalized expression. A singing, non-percussive instrument, it well serves Bach’s demand for “cantabile Art” in execution, the instrument conceived as “a gentle creature, ideal for playing alone, accompanying a singer, improvising and extemporizing freely.” Schiff owns two such instruments, each made by Joris Pervlieghe. Schiff feels the musical product to be pure, free of the distortions and exaggerations permitted by the piano and its sustaining pedal. The effect results in a “quiet oasis in our noisy, troubled times.” The specific clavichord used for this recording was built in 2003 for Jos von Immerseel, who graciously made his instrument available.

For the purpose of this review, I first turned to the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor (c. 1717) at the end of Disc 2, if only to savor the quality of Schiff’s instrument in a bravura context. The light action of the clavichord producers a more transparent texture in the opening Fantasia than the norm, the opening toccata’s 32nd and 16th note triplets’ achieving a smooth, legato sonority, while Schiff’s quickness in the recitative provides its own excitement. The Fugue proceeds in clear, jaunty lines, moving inexorably to a resolution in the relative F Major. The strettos, too, combine dramatic weight with a clarity of texture that highlights Bach’s sensitivity to color gradations, a quality that often becomes sacrificed by the sheer volume of sound from a Steinway or Bechstein.

Schiff opens with Bach’s “program” keyboard work, the Capriccio in B-flat Major, “On the Departure of His Beloved Brother.” The piece falls into six identifiable sections, as the family anticipates the brother’s leaving, aware of possible dangers, the lament and farewell, and the arrival of the postilion that bears him away. The sonority at key moments plays like a lute, given the tone and enunciated figures of the Adaggiosissimo and horn call of the carriage. The fugal finale contains humor as well as pathos in its imitation of the horn call, a sense of expectant joy at the projected return of the traveling kin. 

The two ensuing sets of Inventions and Sinfonias share the didactic purpose of refining the player’s capacity to create a cantabile style of realization in music that no less imbues a taste for composition in two and three parts. The Invention in C Minor enjoys a rich tapestry, while the power of Schiff’s trill in the D Major quite impresses. The D Minor combines toccata and dance styles in compressed form. The longest of the set, that in E Major, bears an Italian cast, akin to Scarlatti’s sonata exercises. Scarlatti seems no less present in the knotty No. 12 in A Major. In the lute sonority, those Inventions in minor well recall the tradition imbibed from Byrd, Farnaby, and the English virginal school. This applies to the familiar A Minor Invention, which plays like a study for the later French suites. The familiar F Major quite bounces with youthful fervor for just under one minute. The G Minor projects a resolute energy almost in spite of the soft dynamic of the clavichord. Schiff’s rendition of another favorite, that in B-flat Major, sounds like a guitar transcription. 

The Four Duets first appeared in publication in 1839. Lacking a pedal part, these originally organ pieces suit the clavichord admirably, their relative length allowing us to savor the alternating sonorities as the pieces advance. The mood is one of experimental figurations in chromatic counterpoint. The F Major presents rather startling dissonances in its martial resolve. Schiff applies a degree of rubato in No. 3 in G that some may find a romantic indulgence, but the warmth of expression will win some admirers. The last, in A Minor, finds Bach in an extraordinarily expressive mode, the line driven and punctuated with an emotionalism that anticipates Bach’s own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. 

Disc 1 concludes with Schiff’s rendering of the “Ricercar a 3” from Bach’s The Musical Offering of 1747, a multi-dimensional set of canons and fugues based on a theme provided by Frederick II of Prussia. Speculation has it that Handel’s A Minor Fugue from 6 Fugues or Voluntarys (HWV 609) may have provided the model for this Ricercar, having similar jumps and a descending chromatic scale. The “learned,” staid power of this three-part fugue is not diminished by the sonority of the clavichord, which still bears a dark menace in its layered figures. 

There remains Schiff’s execution of the Three-Part Sinfonias (c. 1720-23), pieces that disabuse the triumphant student who has mastered the Two-Part Inventions with the daunting task of having to address the “cantabile style” in more learned pieces whose motivic compression – limited to two pages – has virtually no equal. The sinfonias follow the same plan as the Inventions (and WTC, to a point) through 15 key signatures. The No. 2 in C Minor by Schiff has the transparent loveliness of a Vivaldi lute or mandolin concerto. The longest to perform, the No. 9 in F Minor, proffers a triple fugue of marcato, aristocratic carriage. Virtually all of the sinfonias exploit a fugal procedure that involves the upper two voices. No. 4 in D Minor asks of Schiff to realize some striking harmonies as well as smoothly rendered ornaments. 

The No. 6 in E Major sounds like a preliminary study for the Chorale, “Jesu, Joy o Man’s Desiring,” from Cantata No. 147.  The drooping figures in No. 7 in E Minor anticipate music by Brahms. The No. 8 in F Major plays like a lively gondolier’s song, something Mozart might employ. The G Major, No. 10, looks ahead to the Fifth French Suite. A chaste beauty informs both No. 11 in G Minor and No. 13 in A Minor, almost Renaissance courtly dances. Transparent counterpoint marks No. 12 in A Major, the voices exhibiting what Blake calls “fearful symmetry” of parts. The last two Sinfonias, in B-flat Major and B Minor, respectively, reveal the rich harmonic syntax that Bach could invest in a confined space. The latter’s rhythmic energy could pass for either Scarlatti or Vivaldi, so infectious is its plastic sense of playful innovation.

We have been privy to those intimately ennobling exercises of Johann Sebastian Bach as shared by Andras Schiff, a refreshment of mind and spirit granted by a musical instrument for selective, perhaps acquired, tastes.

–Gary Lemco  

Andreas Schiff, Clavichord – J.S. Bach – ECM:

Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, BWV 992;
Inventions, BWV 772-786;
Four Duets, BWV 802-805;
Ricercar a 3 from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079;
Sinfonias, BWV 787-801;
Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903  

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