Andras Schiff's 'Well-Tempered' Guide To Bach

Jan 16, 2013
Originally published on January 24, 2013 12:54 pm

When he was a boy, Andras Schiff labored over the tedious, repetitive finger studies that are universally loathed by aspiring pianists. He thought they were like spinach: yucky, but good for you if you want to grow up to be big and strong ... on the piano keyboard.

But Schiff needed to improve his dexterity and thought this was the only way. He soon realized, though, that he didn't need what he called "those silly exercises" after he found J.S. Bach.

"Bach gives me that and much more," Schiff told me while seated at a piano at the 92nd Street Y in New York. "It gives me emotional, intellectual and physical pleasure and satisfaction."

Schiff threw away his dreary workbooks and began playing Bach's preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier instead. More than 50 years later, he still does: "Every day of my life, I start with playing Bach, usually for about an hour, sometimes even before breakfast! It's like taking care of your inner hygiene. There is something very pure about it."

Schiff has such an intimate relationship with these works, hearing him play them is like getting an inside view of a wondrously successful lifelong marriage. While there is no gratuitous sentiment, every gesture is suffused with loving tenderness. He plays with both delicacy and directness.

There is even a kind of personal secret code Schiff has developed with these works, like pet names shared between a loving older couple. Bach carefully laid out the preludes and fugues in both books of his Well-Tempered Clavier: 24 of each, in every possible key, major and minor. Schiff affectionately thinks of each piece as having not just a key but a particular character that he sees as color. D major is a bright, burnished brassy gold. A minor is "painful, as red as blood can be." C major is the pure innocence of white. B minor is black, the color of death.

For Schiff, these preludes and fugues are both the finest possible way to hone his finger skills and a precious source of unending satisfaction, newly gratifying and revelatory every time he plays them.

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