While listening to Andras Schiff's new recording of J.S. Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" on headphones as I stared up into the crown of a maple tree, it suddenly struck me that listening to Bach is like staring up into the crown of a maple tree.
The root of each passage in "Clavier" is clear and the end-points are self-evident. But the ever-branching paths from beginning to end are a fascinating blend of seemingly chance procedure and inexorable logic. This is music that skips, swerves, stutters, scurries, struts, dreams, hesitates, ponders. It's a seemingly inexhaustible treasure house of melodic/rhythmic/harmonic pattern and possibility.
Schiff is alert to every one of those patterns and possibilities.
His new ECM recording of "Clavier" is his second go at the keyboard cycle (he recorded it for Decca in 1990). In a recent interview posted on Vimeo, the pianist held forth eloquently and sometimes mischievously about his connection to Bach.
"To me he's a divine presence, and the greatest composer of all time," Schiff said. "Most people would agree on that. I think if you really dislike Bach, you keep quiet about it."
Schiff acknowledges that, in Bach's own time, his greatness as a composer wasn't always acknowledged -- perhaps, he says, because Bach never took "the easy way" in his music.
"He's incredibly demanding to listen to, even today -- emotionally, intellectually demanding. It's anything but light entertainment ... although there's plenty of joy in the music. I think there's even plenty of humor in it. But it's very sophisticated humor."
Each book of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" takes the form of 24 paired preludes and fugues. The first book was composed in 1723 and, in the words of Bach, was intended "for the use and profit of young musicians desirous of learning as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study."
It was 20 years before Bach composed Book II.
"Obviously, the first one was highly successful," Schiff says, "so he wanted to try it again. You know, 20 years is a very long time. I can say that because there are about 20 years or 25 years between my two recordings of this. You could ask, 'Why do you make another recording?' And I could not answer that, really."
That said, he believes the new recording is the better of the two. In his 1990 recording, he says, he hears "some sentimental touches which I did not consider sentimental at the time. I think with age you get a little bit more secure. You have more self-confidence. You don't want to be interesting," he says with a sort of airy sarcasm. "I don't mind if somebody finds my playing very boring."
With a small puckish smile, he adds: "When I was a young man I used to find Switzerland a very boring country. Now I think it's highly interesting."
The advantage of age, he feels, is that "you don't want to impress, you don't want to entertain. You know that this is a great piece of music and it can take care of itself."
One performance constraint Schiff is adamant about is refraining from use of the piano's sustaining pedal, because no keyboard instruments had a sustaining pedal in Bach's time. Instead, Schiff prolongs notes on the piano, where he sees fit, by keeping his fingers down on the piano keys.
"The clarity is essential in this music," he says. "All you have to do is not to ruin it. It's already a lot."