As a young pianist, András Schiff earned wide esteem for his 1980s recordings of the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach; in recent years, as part of his long-term relationship with ECM, he has gone back to Bach as a sage veteran, earning even more acclaim for his New Series versions of the Goldberg Variations (2001) and the six Partitas (2007), both intimate concert recordings. In August 2011, Schiff turned his focus to the 48 preludes and fugues of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, recording both Books I and II in the Auditorium Radiosvizzera Italiana, Lugano. The performance of these influential works sets new interpretive standards. For the recording, Schiff’s own Steinway was brought to Lugano, and the production beautifully captures a masterful player and his instrument of choice.
An iconic inspiration for composers from Mozart and Beethoven to Chopin and Brahms and beyond, The Well-Tempered Clavier has long been considered the Old Testament of the keyboard literature (with Beethoven’s piano sonatas as the New Testament). In his liner notes to Schiff’s new four-CD set of “the 48”, Paul Griffiths underscores the suitability of Bach’s timeless keyboard work for the modern grand piano: “Bach’s inquiry into so many nuances, of touch, of interplay between hands and between contrapuntal lines, of character and of expressivity, has helped form keyboard technique as we know it, and his music belongs to the instrument of Beethoven, of Chopin, of Debussy, of Kurtág – especially when that instrument is played with the mastery and sensitivity of Schiff in these performances. (...) Noteworthy is his floated melody and his rhythmic sense – his realization that so much of Bach’s music is song or dance. Grandeur and intimacy are also here. Wit, too.”
In the liner-note introduction to his ECM release of Bach’s Partitas, Schiff laid out his motivation for revisiting music he first recorded two decades before: “Great music is far greater than its performers. We try our entire lives to unveil its secrets and to convey its unique message. Even if we never quite reach the imaginary goal, our many performances give us experience and knowledge that were hidden from us years ago. We form a better understanding of its structure and inner workings. Horizons broaden before our eyes.”
Schiff will explore those broadened horizons in his “Bach Project,” which includes performances of Bach’s music across North America from October 2012 to November 2013. The tour begins with The Well-Tempered Clavier and will go on to include the French Suites, English Suites, Partitas and Goldberg Variations, as well as keyboard concertos with the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Schiff announced his “Bach Project” by joining author Stuart Isacoff (Temperament and A Natural History of the Piano) at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse in New York City to discuss Bach in front of an audience. The discussion led to a question about what Schiff heard in his early Bach discs that he strove to improve upon in his ECM recordings. “There were touches of sentimentality that I didn’t consider sentimental at the time – and I don’t like sentimentality,” he said. “Perhaps you become more secure with age – you don’t feel the need to impress. You know this is a great piece of music that can speak for itself.”
András Schiff, born in Budapest in 1953, puts a strong focus on cyclic performances of the important piano works by the masters from Bach to Bártok. His wide-ranging discography on ECM includes works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Janáček, among many others. One of Schiff's most ambitious projects to date, the complete Beethoven sonata cycle was performed in 20 major musical centers worldwide and recorded for ECM in concert at the Zürich Tonhalle. In 1999, Schiff created his own chamber orchestra, the Cappella Andrea Barca, which consists of international soloists, chamber musicians and friends. In addition to working annually with this orchestra, he conducts London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.