J.S. BACH: CLAVICHORD – ANDRÁS SCHIFF ECM New Series 2635/36
After his landmark recording of some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most important keyboard music, one of the great Bach interpreters of our time turns his attention to the composer’s preferred instrument. The sound of the clavichord is, says András Schiff, an invitation into “a new world, a quiet oasis in our noisy, troubled times. Thanks to the clavichord I now play and hear Bach differently.” An intimate and personal instrument – “a most gentle creature, ideal for playing alone” – it can also be, as Schiff notes, a demanding and unforgiving teacher. “On the clavichord we have only our fingers at our disposal, they must create the music with the finest gradations of touch.” The early keyboard works are emphasized here, bringing us closer to the sounds of Bach’s day, and the “cantabile art” of the clavichord. The album opens with the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratro dilettissmo, journeys through Inventions and Sinfonias, and concludes with an extraordinary account of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. On this recording, Schiff’s first on the clavichord, he plays a replica of a 1743 Specken instrument, built by Belgian craftsman Joris Potvlieghe. The album was recorded in the Kammermusik Saal of Bonn’s Beethoven-Haus and produced by Manfred Eicher.
András Schiff is one of the greatest J.S. Bach interpreters of our time and his dedication to Bach’s oeuvre has been extensively recorded on ECM’s New Series, receiving wide acclaim with his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations (2001) and the Six Partitas (2007), before taking on both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier (2012). The New York Times: “Mr. Schiff is, in Bach, a phenomenon. He doesn’t so much perform it as emit, breathe it.” Here Schiff returns to Bach, this time on clavichord, and presents a special selection, spanning the Capriccio in B-flat major, Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions as well as the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the Four Duets and Ricercar à 3 from Musikalisches Opfer.
In a performer’s note for this new double-CD, András Schiff writes: “On first hearing, the sound of the clavichord may seem unfamiliar and strange but, little by little, you will become accustomed to it. Then a new world will open up, like a quiet oasis in our noisy, troubled times. Thanks to the clavichord I now play and hear Bach differently – even on the modern piano: it’s all more detailed.”
Schiff’s infatuation with the clavichord ensues a long line of composers and musicians who held the instrument in equally high regard, praising its transparent nature and delicate dynamics. In his detailed account of the instrument in the liner text, the Belgian clavichord and organ maker Joris Potvlieghe traces the clavichord’s presence and reception back to the 14th century, marking the instrument’s peak in the 16th, though, “the only clavichords built before the end of the 17th century were fretted.”
In his forward to the Inventions and Sinfonias Bach addresses them to those who “love the clavier most of all to acquire a cantabile art of playing”. Several sources, cited in Potvlieghe’s notes, provide strong evidence that with ‘clavier’ Bach referred to the clavichord. Originally conceived as keyboard and composition instruction, in Schiff’s lucid interpretations the pieces inherit a fresh guise that emphasises the converging voices with rare accuracy.
The Capriccio is most notable due to the programmatic subtitles Bach provided for each movement – an uncharacteristic practice for the composer. On the Arioso. Adagio, for instance, Bach comments: “Is a cajoling by his friend to deter him from his journey”. Like the Capriccio, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue – initially conceived for harpsichord – is marked by a highly improvisatory and expressive notion. Beginning with two ascents up different parts of the chromatic scale, the demanding piece famously explores all keys and belongs among those works that prompted Arnold Schönberg to call Bach the first 12-tone composer. Ricercar à 3, the opening piece to Muskalisches Opfer, and the Four Duets – similar in nature to the inventions but composed much later – accompany these centerpieces in the programme.
András Schiff has drawn on period instruments for ECM New Series recordings several times over the past decade. He used a Bechstein grand of 1921 for the Diabelli Variations (2013), followed by his two double albums with Schubert’s late piano works, performed on a fortepiano built by Franz Brodmann in 1820. Most recently, Schiff turned to a historic Blüthner grand piano of 1859 for the recording of Brahms’ piano concertos alongside the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (hailed by The Guardian as “wonderfully rounded and mature”, while The New York Times praised Schiff for making the concertos sound “intimate and human-scale”). BBC Music Magazine made the restored Blüthner partially responsible for the recording’s success, due to the “clarity of its bass, enabling many orchestral details to come through that one rarely hears”.
The period instrument used for this specific recording was built by Joris Potvlieghe in 2003 and is a replica of the unfretted Specken clavichord of 1743. Its gentle attack and quiet action in Schiff’s experienced hands render even the densest three-part counterpoint acoustically crystalline and flush with nuance. In his text Schiff insists that the instrument “is a most gentle creature, ideal for playing alone, accompanying a singer, improvising and extemporising freely, meant to be heard by the player, or at most by a handful of listeners.”
András Schiff: “When I’m at home, my day always begins with Bach. It used to be on the piano, now it’s on the clavichord, even before breakfast. After a few of the Inventions I feel reborn.” The album was recorded in the Kammermusik Saal of Bonn’s Beethoven-Haus and produced by Manfred Eicher.
Besides Bach, Schubert and more recently Brahms, Schiff’s past recordings of Robert Schumann, Leoš Janáček as well as Beethoven garnered much critical praise – The Observer especially lauding his “formidably incisive, subtle and persuasive pianism” in his recital of Schumann’s Geistervariationen (2011). Schiff’s performance of Janáček’s On An Overgrown Path from A Recollection (2001) is considered a landmark recording as is his recording of the complete Beethoven sonata cycle. Further albums from his ECM New Series catalogue include In Concert (2002), with a selection of works by Schumann, Songs of Debussy an Mozart (2003) performed alongside soprano Juliane Banse, Music for Two Pianos (1999) playing music by Mozart, Reger and Busoni with late pianist Peter Serkin and more.