Schiff’s Prom, Bach’s Blows

The 64thinstallment of the BBC Proms of this season took place last Thursday: a performance of the Verdi Requiem at London’s Royal Albert Hall. These 90 minutes of bombast and bliss were served up without intermission, or interval, as they call it in “British.” As I reported last week, those invigorating decibels helped keep the Prommers—all but one—from toppling to the floor: rush tickets for this celebrated summer series of concerts are cheap (six pounds apiece) but require the Prommer to stand for the duration of the concert.

I had thought about going to the 63rdProm the night before in the same cavernous venue, the Albert Hall, opened by Queen Victoria in 1871 in memory of her husband, who had died ten years earlier of typhoid fever. This vast rotunda can hold up to 5,500 people and has a long association not just with great concerts—most famously the Proms—but also boxing matches and other sporting spectacles. Muhammad Ali made two exhibition appearances in the auditorium in the 1970s. There is something weirdly bracing to know that blows have been traded in the same arena where classical music heroics are enacted in front of eager fans, the most rabid of them standing at the foot of the stage like cornermen peering through the ropes of the ring.  One is reminded that big-time sporting events and concerts have much in common: hearing and watching a world-class pianist go the distance with a heavyweight Russian concerto (Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky) or take on a dangerous passel of central European solo études by Chopin or Liszt is often as grueling and exciting as a title fight.  There is always the possibility of a knockout—technical or otherwise.

In the case of that 63rdProm, the contest in question was between one of our time’s most admired pianists, Sir Andras Schiff and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. This collection of preludes and fugues ascends inexorably through all the major and minor keys. It may not be as physically demanding as the flashier works of the nineteenth-century show-offs, but there is nothing in the keyboard repertory as taxing as the diverse demands of Bach’s collection of contrapuntal essays preceded by fully-fledged introductory movements of kaleidoscopic variety.

That is why I didn’t venture down to the Proms:  I literally did not think I could stand it, especially as the concert began at 9:30 in the evening and the WTC II takes more than two hours to get through. As the tonalities rose up from bright C Major to shadowy B Minor I could just imagine the blood draining from my legs and me crashing down to the floorboards. I doubted that the gravity-defying intellects of Bach and Schiff could keep me vertical for some 140 minutes.

When the pianist had performed the first book of the WTC at the Proms just a year ago he had done so without an interval. But that collection, put together nearly twenty before the second installment, is significantly shorter. Word had it that for book two Schiff would take a short break half-way through. But in the event he pushed through without pause, dispatching one pair on his mighty Steinway, a high-polished slab of ebony, ivory, and iron glinting in the white spotlights illuminating the stage and the background blue that might have led one to imagine that all were enclosed in a giant Bachian brain.  But at the keyboard no finger misstepped or fugal entry faltered over the two-hour-plus marathon.

Instead of venturing to the late-night exhibition I lay in bed and watched the live-stream on my laptop at my host’s apartment just across Hyde Park from the Albert Hall.

Though horizontal, I did not doze off once during this riveting, poised investigation of Bach’s genius for contrapuntal combination that, though never approached in cerebral mastery by any other composer, uses that skill not only to demonstrate its control of the material but also to move and delight the player and listener.  Even hard-hearted materialists like myself can be pulled to the brink of spiritual revelation by this music. The technical precision achieves transcendence: it is difficult, and probably self-defeating, not to become a touch mystical when immersed in the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Like its predecessor, the second book of Well-Tempered Clavier was conceived as a pedagogical volume for Bach’s sons and students: indeed, the most important manuscript of the work, which is now housed in the British Library just three miles northwest across London from the Albert Hall, was written out not just by the composer himself, but relied on scribal help from his wife Anna Magdalena and his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. The “Clavier” of the title was a generic term for any keyboard instrument (harpsichord, organ, clavichord, or, by historical extension, the outsized modern grand piano that Bach never knew). But we do learn from Bach’s first biographer, who used information gathered from Wilhelm Friedemann and his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, that their father favored the clavichord, the softest of keyboards, for “his private musical entertainments.”  What this essential tool of German domestic musical life in Bach’s time lacked in volume it more than compensated for in expressivity and immediacy.  The player hears the clavichord best; a few others gathered around can participate vicariously at close range.

To bring this parade of preludes and fugues to an audience of 5,000 requires the power of big black machine—a production of the industrial age, its design arrived at by Steinway, not coincidentally, just as the Albert Hall was being completed. At the modern grand this music takes on paradoxically industrial intimacy: Schiff draws his massive audience into this world of intense craft and feeling that can’t help but feel vast, complex, distant. From the slightly unsettled, sometimes dark pastoral of the opening Prelude in C Major and its affirmative and angular fugue to the restive runs, leaps and antic trills of the closing b-minor fugue one hears in the Albert Hall (or over one’s head phones) the sound a mechanical age in which the machine doesn’t so much conjure emotion but tests it–the Steinway is used to verify the suspicion that it the human can still feel.

Schiff was never dazed by Bach’s blows. He mastered his opponent from another age and of another weight-class (grand piano versus clavichord). This is not just a historical divide but an aesthetic one, too, and one marks it not in Schiff’s unerring assemblage of the contrapuntal parts, but, perhaps surprisingly, in the ornaments. The fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier are prized by music analysts, as well erudite performers and listeners, for their deep structures and combinatorial insights, most dauntingly presented in the d-sharp-minor fugue with its three interlocking themes that mesh with more technical precision than a late-model Mercedes transmission.

Yet the collection is also filled with trills and turns that decorate and enliven.  Seeming superficial they are crucial to the style, to the grace and rhetorical charm that prevents both the preludes and the fugues from beginning to lecture. These decorations’ importance is clear from eighteenth-century music treatises, most importantly one by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, which gone on at great length about how to realize these curls and squiggles on the page—their decorative qualities and nuanced execution.  Against that son’s advice, Schiff’s ornaments come most of the time before the beat, and often they are not tossed off with a kind of practiced elegance. Instead, they are infinitesimally slowed down so that the individual notes become too important. The result of this subtle, but crucial difference yields a kind of mechanistic, careful coldness. Critical—and aural—attention focuses on contrapuntal exegesis: bringing out the fugal entries as Schiff likes to do. But in the smallest details of the trill is revealed the whole attitude towards performance and the way one speaks musically to one’s self at the keyboard and one’s listeners.

There are no frilly cuffs on Schiff’s concert outfit:  like his piano he is clad all in black. It is not that his instrument is modern, but that his ornaments (and the lack of them) are.

There but a few ornaments in the C Major and C Minor pairs: indeed, the first prelude has none. But in the highly ornamented the C-sharp Prelude Schiff’s gaceless graces, though exceptionally coming mostly (and properly) on the beat, continually blunted the music’s refined reserve. That intrusion of modernity, born of a misunderstanding of style, lifted us away from Bach and into the industrial age.

That Schiff’s realization of Bach’s ornaments come ever-so-slightly ahead of schedule found an odd symmetry in the final applause that came within a second after Schiff lifted his hands after the b-minor fugue, lingering on the appoggiatura—a deferred resolution that perhaps marks Bach’s own reluctance to say goodbye. The audience clapped almost instantaneously as Schiff remaining immersed in his world for several seconds, lingering in transcendent realms beyond the blue light and the roar of thousands. Then he rose to his feet: a champion.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at