In Michael Lawrence’s documentary Bach & Friends composer Philip Glass makes the provocative claim that J.S. Bach was not a composer — not in the sense that we ordinarily understand, as someone who plans and works over his craft. “I think pieces arrived in his mind complete,” in a kind of cosmic download. The best complement for Glass’s unorthodox view might very well be the experience of a Bach recital by pianist András Schiff; Friday’s marathon performance of the “English” Suites seemed infused with fluent and effortless energy from a higher sphere.
This was a concert for the die-hard Bach lover, and for anyone else who simply wanted to witness keyboard artistry at an exceptionally high level. These six suites, of six movements each, are relatively early compositions for Bach, and they emerged during a prolific period of secular writing that included the cello suites, the violin sonatas and partitas, and reams of keyboard music. Bach never intended all six to be played in one sitting, and Schiff admits he may be the only one to do so. With clarity that rivaled a Euclidean proof, the pianist cycled through all 36 movements, dutifully honoring every repeat. Schiff is a purist who plays with his shoes flat on the floor, shunning the sustain petal, a feature unknown in the clavichords and harpsichords of Bach’s day. The burden of legato phrasing and sustains falls entirely on the hands, a feat masterfully demonstrated early in the program in the contrast between Bourrée I and II in the first suite.
Schiff has a long relationship with this music; his 1990 recording of the “English” Suites was awarded a Grammy. He is a full-immersion researcher who throws himself into whole bodies of work at one time (recently, all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas), relishing context, seeing every part in the whole. A Schiff recital is always an experience of austerity and endurance, which brings its own welcome measure of clarity. But the real marvel is the purity of his encounter with the music, and the portal of light and color he throws open for the rest of us.