Andras Schiff. Bach before the Mast

Sir András Schiff performed a programme entirely dedicated to Bach, including the composer’s Capriccio in B flat, allegedly written to bid fond farewell to his brother, and his 1735 Italian Concerto.

  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
      • Capriccio in B flat major (Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother) BWV992
      • Sinfonia No. 5 in E flat BWV791
      • Sinfonia No.9 in F minor BWV795
      • Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV903
      • Italian Concerto in F BWV971
      • Ouvertüre nach französischer Art BWV831

Bach before the Mast indeed.George Malcom an almost forgotten musician but not by Andras Schiff who as a 14 year old boy came to study in London with this genial complete musician.The nearest we could have come to a Kapelmeister.It was very touching to see some years later when Andras Schiff had begun to make a mark in the music world,Master and pupil,now equals,performing Mozart G major concerto together at the Proms.It is obviously from Malcom that not only did he receive a most human and natural understanding of Baroque music but also inherited his wry,intelligent sense of humour.

I remember when we all used to flock to Dartington surrounded by the greatest musicians of the day :Vlado Perlemuter,Sandor Vegh,Ilona Kabos,George Malcom,Peter Maxwell Davis,Julian Bream,Harrison Birtwistle,André Tchaikowsky,Daniel and Enrique Barenboim,Stephen Bishop,William Pleeth,Lamar Crawson,Nell Gotkowsky,Youra Guller,Neville Marriner and his St Martin in the Fields ensemble and in residence the Amadeus Quartet.All these assembled for six weeks around the dream that had been started by William Glock at Bryanston with Schnabel and Busch just after the war.We seemingly talented students at the Colleges used to be offered scholarships to perform in masterclasses for six weeks in these blissful surrounding on the estate near Totnes in Devon that was owned by the Elmhursts.American philanthropists who believed in encouraging art and in particular local crafts and skills before they became totally commercialised and divorced from their roots.

I remember a very young boy who had been sent from Hungary to study and André Tchaikowsky was advised that he was a very special talent and to treat him accordingly.Well that was like a red rag to a bull for André especially when a very pretty Katie Kennedy arrived in the class with the Scherzo in E flat minor op 4 by Brahms with which she had recently been awarded a major prize at the Royal Academy.André with all his impish modesty admitted he did not know it.A voice from the back was heard to comment that it was a well known work.’Well you teach it to her then’he said to the now very embarrassed young Hungarian prodigy.Andras Schiff went on to play in the class concert Chopin’s third ballade that those present have never forgotten for it’s seamless legato and aristocratic control.Daniel Adni was another young prodigy in that period.A student of Barenboim’s father who went on to make his debut playing Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto with Klemperer at the Festival Hall -Geza Anda said he played like a young God.Martin Dorrié,another teenage prodigy whose mother asked André for advice as to the career that her son and star pupil of Kammerling in Germany should pursue .’Dentistry or music she asked?’’Well’,said André ‘I know about his beautiful playing but know nothing about his teeth?’Radu Lupu used to play chess with André on the lawn and sometimes wander into his class much to our trepidation.

Out of all these wonderful times the one thing that has remained constant is the artistry of Andras Schiff.The simplicity of someone where music is life and life is music.That same simple total mastery that had Wilhelm Kempff arrive at the recording studios and simply say:’What would you like me to record today?’The same total absorption with ‘Music’ of Badura Skoda or Demus.Today we appear to be obsessed with note picking perfection that is killing the very essence of the music and above all the humility wonder and daily use of mere performers.It was astonishing even for us musicians to hear Andras describe the works he was playing and without the score be able to pick out single voices,left hand,right hand passages as an architect might point out the foundations on which a monument had been constructed.The music was allowed to evolve so naturally and envelope this imaginary audience in ninety minutes of seamless streams of sounds played without any strange effects or rhetorical egoisms.

The music was allowed to speak for itself or so it seems .It is an Art that conceals Art.I was reminded of the 90 year old Artur Rubinstein on this very platform 45 years ago begging us not to allow this hallowed hall to be demolished.Sitting motionlessly as Andras Schiff today as he allowed the music to pour out of him with the directness that seems to nourish places that others do not know exist.It is not for me to describe how such an artist plays and there is an excellent summary by Jessica Duchen in her review today.But I have jotted down some of the eloquent simple words that Andras Schiff used to guide his imaginary audience through this short survey of Bach’s music.

’All Bach.Why?Because he is by far the greatest composer who ever lived.There is no need to prove it.All those that disagree do not have to listen!’The Capriccio one of the earliest known works of Bach and with a precise programme.Bon voyage indeed!Twenty years later Bach the educator wrote his two and three part inventions to educate his children to give them good taste in composition,control of independent voices .Stressing in particular the need to make the piano sing.’If you hit the piano it will hit back!’The Sinfonias n.5 and 9 played with his feet firmly on the ground and his superb finger legato demonstrated this without any fuss.Played with a simplicity and beauty.The alto melodic line in the 5th Sinfonia was astonishing in its richness and clarity.You could almost see the anguish on his face as he played the great lament of the 9th Sinfonia .As he said at the end this is one of the greatest of works that in only two minutes of music Bach is able to say so much with so little .In fact you have the whole meaning of the St Mathew passion in these few profoundly moving minutes.Introducing his performance of one of Bach’s most popular pieces according to his biographer Forkel in 1802.The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue where the Fantasy is a free improvisation but well organised!A strict and severe fugue but with certain licences.Quoting Casals ‘Freedom but with order’The animal excitement in the fantasy before the recitativi was breathtaking as were the surprising changes of harmony played as though he too were discovering them for the first time.The utter simplicity of the fugue subject made me so aware for the first time of the similarity to the fugue of Beethoven’s op 110.Gradually gaining energy as it led to the grandiose final bass D.

Bach was born in 1685 the same year as Handel and Domenico Scarlatti it was obviously a vintage year !The final two works were from the second part of the Klavierubung consisting of the Italian Concerto and the French Overture.Bach was not only a great composer but an encyclopedist and scientist looking at each composition and taking it to perfection and beyond.These two works were written for a harpsichord with two manuals so Andras said he is playing it on the wrong instrument.Adding with his dry humour ‘I apologise’’It is music so great that it transcends limitations of the instrument.Every instrument has it’s limitations even this Steinway piano.We try to overcome that with making illusions of legato and sustaining notes.’Bach is a German composer but not nationalistic.Nowhere do we see the word Deutsch.He is a European International composer- Italian Concerto-modelled on Vivaldi,Albinoni and Corelli and the miracle of creating the illusion of an orchestra and soloists from a single instrument. The French Overture with movements that are French,German,Spanish and Scottish, we have a perfect example of Europe and we should not forget that and be proud of it as a humble Hungarian Jew performs it in London!Influenced by Lully,Couperin and Rameau each of the eleven movements is repeated and it is not for us mere performers to know better.After all it is like the second serve in tennis where you can play better and here have different articulation or ornamentation.

Andras Schiff showing us that miracles do exist as he wished us a Happy New Year from a seemingly empty Wigmore Hall .Playing the Aria from the Goldberg Variations as a thank you to the invisible audience around the globe he demonstrated their bass foundation.Foundations on which all buildings are constructed and with the hope that something beautiful will be created from these disturbing times when they are just a terrible memory


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