View Skewed takes on its first classical review with The 92Y Well Tempered Clavier.NYC’s 92Y put on two exquisite classical piano concerts this week featuring pianist András Schiff playing both books of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. The 92Y also used social media to promote the lead in of the two historic shows through Twitter, by creating the #WellTweetedClavier. It was through this campaign that brought the visitor to the 92Y website where they were treated to Schiff’s ideas about these two impressive books of work.
Mr. Schiff explains that he sees colors that matches the keys of the piano, or all the keys within the Well Tempered Clavier. This campaign explained to the viewer about Schiff’s color scheme by attaching a color to each key of the keyboard. The #WTClavier taught us about what a fugue is (A fugue has multiple (usually four) voices that perform a theme in succession, just like a round (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”), and their hand picked YouTube videos promoted each song within the Well Tempered Clavier by including a variety of musicians, pianists, orchestras, violinists, harpsichordists, vocalists and even a few cartoon characters playing Bach. It was a whimsical, funny and sometimes tongue-in-cheek way of promoting and teaching the public, the tweeters and the interested viewers alike. I encourage you and your family to interact with the #WTClavier keyboard and learn more on your own by clicking here: 92Y WTClavier
Below is Justin Brunelle‘s look at what he experienced when he went to the 92Y to see Mr. Schiff play Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, book 1 and book 2. I hope you enjoy it. -Ed.
New York, NY
There is a purity in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach that belies its rich nature. The 18th century composer flourished in the Baroque period, marked by ornamentation in all forms of art. In music, the use of ornamentation came up against traditions upheld for centuries. Bach was able to bridge the gap between tradition and improvisation, which lead to a sophistication that still seems modern today. In doing so, he became one of the great preservationists and innovators in the history of western music.
Bach’s most pedagogical contribution to history is The Well Tempered Clavier, a series of compositions for the student and the accomplished keyboard player alike. The Well Tempered Clavier is two books written in 1722 and 1742, each book is comprised of 24 preludes and fugues from each major and minor key of every note in the chromatic scale. It is simply called The 48.
A prelude is a beginning, an introduction to the presence of melody. The fugue is a classical compositional technique that develops a theme through repetition of two or more voices. The relationship between these voices is in harmony while being independent of each other in terms of melodic contour and rhythm. In this form the melody is deconstructed or rearranged in many ways. Bach inserts a great many chord inversions, trills, augmentations, and other contrapuntal devices. The compositions range from deceptively simple to intricate, calisthenics for the mind and body where both the right and left-brain is continually tested. To hear them played well, where all the interweaving elements come together in polyphonic harmony, is to witness sheer perfection.
András Schiff has consistently shown the temperament to execute these techniques with sobering flair. On October 27th and November 1st, at the 92nd Street Y, Mr. Schiff played both books from memory, in their entirety, to a packed crowd of aficionados and musicians. He played them without pedal, reliant on the mechanical nature of his touch alone for sustain. It was an opportunity to hear a master…as pianist Laura Leon said before the first concert, “I came to learn, that’s why I am here.”
The first impression of Mr. Schiff’s interpretations is clarity. His intense devotion to the material is palpable. This devotion spread to everyone’s rapt attention like a convocation.
Indeed, Mr. Schiff showed a tacit command of the varied highs and lows of Book 1 in the first set. The bright airiness of E-flat major floated into the explosive juxtaposition of sonority in Prelude in E-minor. The somber sweetness deserving of C-sharp minor eventually gave way to the dizzying exuberance of D major. It is only here in D major did I miss the harpsichord sound.
During the second set I was most struck by the elegant calm of Prelude in B-flat minor as it matured into a gorgeously layered fugue, dramatically separated, only to fold back into itself in one fluid motion. I could not help but visualize the cubist collapse of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912.
The performance of Book 2 had a particular spirit. A mere three days after the devastation suffered by Hurricane Sandy, the concert felt highlighted in a special glow of generosity and salvation that was very religious.
On this occasion the difference between composer and pianist was seemingly erased right from the start of the meditative Prelude in C major. Mr. Schiff refrains from embellishing the works with to many personal touches or accents. The man has become synonymous with Bach in terms temperament, erudition and fervor. One is left with a feeling of remarkable intimacy.
I was fortunate to have a sight line of Mr. Schiff’s hands on the keyboard. It was mesmerizing to watch his nimble fingers reflecting off the black sheen of the Steinway grand during the brilliant Prelude and Fugue in D-sharp minor followed by the clarion salvos in E-flat major.
Book 2 is certainly more dense. The sheer polyphonic force of listening to all the works in one sitting is almost overwhelming, emotionally and intellectually.
Thursday evening’s performance concluded with the wonderful dance of B minor. The light-hearted, frivolous affair formed a perfect resolution to the emotional complexity just witnessed.
Like it or not Mr. Schiff’s decision not to use pedal certainly begets respect for its purist stance. I am convinced the melody has a cleaner evolution without sustain.
After the completing Book 2, Mr. Schiff stood above the roar of the crowd bowing solemnly between curtain calls and then sat back down for an encore. He promptly started at the beginning of Book 1 with the Prelude and Fugue of C major thus completing the journey with yet another beginning. The key sounded extra resonant, even more pure after the labyrinthine path of musical exploits, the elaborate layers between joy and sadness. I felt a lingering consolation. A reminder that the circle is unbroken and there is always more to learn in music. Beauty and truth remains.
Kudos to the 92nd Street Y for their entertaining promotional program and these amazing two nights of music. And bravo, András Schiff.