, May 2011
The so-called French Suites are not, as most of you probably already know, all that French. And indeed Bach’s English Suites are not endemically British. These appellations came after Bach’s death, and the composer himself really drew no such nationalistic distinction between them, considering the “French” outings to simply be easier, shorter suites than the “English.” And in fact Bach’s Suites are inherently international affairs if you simply take the various nationalities of the individual movements into account, as András Schiff explains in the fascinating interview accompanying his performance of all Six French Suites (and a couple of bonus items) on this astounding Blu-ray. The Allemande is a German movement (though in the kind of funny department, it derives its name from the French word for “German.” The Courante is French, the Sarabande Spanish, the Menuet French, and the various so-called galant dance movements which Bach utilized for the closing elements of the Suites—Gavottes, Bourrées—are typically French, though the Gigue (Jig) is actually British in origin. And so there’s a decidedly cosmopolitan and eclectic flair to any of Bach’s keyboard suites, no matter what misapplied nationality has been pasted onto them post-mortem. The French Suites hold a very special place in Bach’s biography, as they were wedding presents of a sort he gave to his second wife Anna Magdalena in order for her to further her nascent keyboard studies. Bach, who not only was a protean composer and music director but also a very busy teacher, also evidently used the Suites as teaching material for the panoply of students who passed through his doors. How lucky those pupils were to have learned the art of the keyboard not just under the tutelage of Bach himself, but through the majesty of his own compositions!
Bach of course never meant for anyone to sit down and play all six French Suites one after the other, and Schiff self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “madman” for even attempting such a feat. What is so amazing about this 2010 Bachfest performance in Leipzig’s Protestant Reformed Church is that Schiff’s attention and energy never flag during a concert which lasts well over two hours. In fact the liquid facility for which Schiff has become so well known in his interpretations of Bach is completely evident from the first note to the last. Despite performing these on a contemporary grand (a specially “retrofitted” Steinway customized by Angelo Fabbrini), Schiff rarely varies from a certain static dynamic quality, of course in keeping with the period keyboards most associated with the Suites, the harpsichord and clavichord, neither of which could elicit much if any change in volume.
What is so gorgeous about these modern piano renditions is that very liquidity of tone, something that has not always been the case even when these pieces have been performed on a concert grand (one thinks especially of the Gould performances). Schiff, though, is an incredibly expressive player who seems to channel the music through his forearms and hands, and he almost appears to be dancing, albeit dancing in a sort of beta-state trance, with his appendages throughout this concert. Schiff’s ornamentations are also exquisitely handled, and he easily culls the voice movements which traverse from hand to hand, eliciting beautifully formed phrases which bring Bach’s polyphonic writing lovingly to the ear. (I’ve always found it at least passingly amusing that many people—including Schiff—relegate the Suites to Bach’s “non-contrapuntal” writing, for in listening to the divine interplay between the voices that Bach crafts here, as he does in virtually all of his pieces, it’s hard not to consider these pieces contrapuntal).
The Suites, despite following a fairly rote overall architecture, are amazingly varied in tone, and it’s also notable (no pun intended) that Bach wrote the first three in minor keys, and the second triptych in major keys. (Even Schiff finds this an “odd” occurrence). But Bach’s febrile imagination is fully on display here as he crafts one rhythmically propulsive movement after another, always surrounding what Schiff refers to as the “heart” of each Suite, the often solemn (albeit gently rocking) Sarabandes. Schiff is able to beautifully cull both the vertical and horizontal genius of Bach, not only in the slower Sarabandes, but perhaps even more impressively in some of the more athletic Gigues and even Gavottes. Schiff is also incredibly nuanced and expressive in the two non-Suite performances. His account of the fascinating “Echo” movement of the Overture in the French Style is a particular delight.
Schiff released a critically acclaimed CD accounting of the French Suites some time ago, and in fact it was with recordings like that lauded release that he became appreciated as one of his generation’s finest interpreters of Bach. Schiff doesn’t have the fiery brusqueness of Gould, but that actually helps him to offer a more placid, but no less intelligent, reading of these incredible pieces of music. This is “flowing” Bach in the best sense, and it’s little wonder that Schiff, in the aforementioned interview included on the Blu-ray, mentions how he sees Bach’s original manuscripts resemble “waves.” That very watery quality is completely in evidence throughout all of these performances, but it’s never a murky, inchoate sea; instead, it’s the crystal clear quasi-Heraclitean flow that can never be entered twice. This is music that moves incessantly along like the uninterrupted thought of some magically invested God, and Schiff makes for an incredibly insightful Oracle of that divinity.
The complete Schiff program consists of:
French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BMV 812
French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BMV 813
French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BMV 814
French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BMV 815
French Suite No. 5 in G major, BMV 816
French Suite No. 6 in E major, BMV 817
Overture in the French Style in B minor, BMV 831
Italian Concerto in F major, BMV 971
Despite being encoded via the relatively “ancient” MPEG-2 protocol, András Schiff Plays Bach looks rather sharp and well defined in its 1080p transfer (in 1.78:1). While camera coverage is relatively limited, we get a decent enough variety of close-up and midrange shots from a variety of angles which provide well saturated color and well above average fine detail. That sharpness extends to some of the people in the audience of what appears to be really a rather small church sanctuary, and you will note several of them seemingly lost in meditative thought as Schiff weaves a spell out of Bach’s incredible linear threads. Contrast is solid throughout this outing, and fine detail gives us a lot of visual information about Schiff’s bristly hair.
Both lossless tracks included on András Schiff Plays Bach are incredibly fulsome, beautifully detailed and offer incredible fidelity. The customized Steinway which Schiff plays has a really elegant tone, somewhat less bright than a traditional Steinway, and that makes these performances even more liquid than Schiff’s touch already creates by itself. But in one of the few instances where I’ve said this, I actually preferred the uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mix to the more spacious DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, and that is simply because it is narrower. The Suites aren’t being performed in orchestral transcriptions, not to state the obvious, and the fact that we have a solo instrument actually makes the LPCM 2.0 mix perfectly adequate, and in some ways superior, for listening to the elegant interplay of voices which Bach’s protean talent seemingly effortlessly is able to create. While there’s nothing bad or even troubling about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, I found the added hall ambience and spill of the lines into the surrounds detrimental to my listening focus, at least in terms of being able to really concentrate on how Bach so magically weaves intersecting lines and ideas. Other listeners may indeed prefer the surround mix simply because it offers more space to listen into the performance. One way or the other, both of these tracks sport brilliant fidelity. There’s really next to no dynamic range per se and by design—Schiff hews a very straight and narrow course without much variance in dynamics, which of course is the historically accurate way to proceed. But all frequency ranges are effortlessly reproduced by both of these tracks, and the piano itself sounds magnificently clear and precise.
Special Features and Extras
András Schiff Explains Bach (1080i; 33:33) is a very inviting sit down with the pianist, who relaxes on a church pew and lets us get inside some salient information on Bach’s biography as well as the architecture and history of the Suites themselves. Schiff talks about growing up with Bach and how to this day he begins each morning with a Bach recital to clear his mind and get his fingers moving. The final part of the interview sees Schiff actually at the piano discussing the Overture in the French Style, which is also included on this Blu-ray. It’s interesting to hear Schiff speak about the Overture’s key (B minor) in terms of the iconic Bach Mass in that tonality.
Overall Score and Recommendation
It may indeed have been “madness” for Schiff to undertake playing all six French Suites, plus two follow-ups, in one epic concert, but if András Schiff Plays Bach is any indication, it’s divine madness. Schiff seems to float effortlessly through all of these pieces, delivering one gorgeously fluid moment after another. Seemingly in the thrall of such brilliantly crafted music, Schiff is almost like a man possessed at times, albeit possessed by a completely loving, calming spirit, which imbues these performances with a rare profundity and power. Highly recommended.