ANDRAS SCHIFF PLAYS BACH ON THE CLAVICHORD

For years many of us have shared the opinion that Johann Sebastian Bach’s works for the clavichord could be played by any good pianist or organist on any keyboard instrument. Listening to Sir András Schiff bring to life this music has convinced me that the best vehicle for it is the self-effacing clavichord, especially as masterfully played by the Hungarian-born maestro.

Much of the music in the soon to be released on the EMC, plainly titled, double CD J.S. Bach András Schiff Clavichord is fun-filled, light-hearted, fully entertaining. It is elsewhere in the recording moving, serious, ethereal, all of it played without reverence and with enormous humanity by András Schiff.

Fun-filled?

If one reads the quaintly titled movements of the Caprice on the Distant and Much Beloved Friend that bears the BMW number 992, it becomes clear that Bach did not limit himself to writing only what has come to be labelled as “pure” music. The quaint names of the movements of this work are theatrically, humorously, and dramatically evocative: “… the flattery of friends to stall the journey… the friends gather to say goodbye seeing that it cannot be otherwise… fugue imitating the sound of a postman’s horn…” This is programmatic music at its most descriptive, and it reminds us that Bach played his sacred music in church and in his off hours shared pieces like this one when doing gigs in cafés to augment his income.  

I hear from a friend and accomplished keyboard player that mastering the playing of a clavichord is not impossible, although it requires a radically different technique than that used to play the piano or the organ. In Bach’s time the lightweight, delicate, and portable clavichord was used mostly at home and considered insufficiently loud for public performances, for which the larger and louder harpsichord was the go-to keyboard instrument.

The clavichord produces its sound by striking its metal strings with tiny hammers that cause vibrations to go to the instrument’s soundboard, where they quickly fade, as there are no pedals to soften or prolong the sound. The only control the player can exercise is to not merely depress, but to press the keys as softly or as hard as he must and then quickly cause his fingers to make their next move. To make agile, quick-moving fugal music on the clavichord is daunting. To achieve the seamless cantabile legato that András Schiff creates in the slow Adagios, Inventions, and Fantasias that occupy the length of this double CD borders on the miraculous.

András Schiff has often espoused the use of period instruments to play music ranging from Bach to Brahms. In his liner notes to the upcoming EMC release he muses: “On first hearing, the sound of the clavichord may seem unfamiliar and strange but, little by little, you will become accustomed to it. Then a new world will open, like a quiet oasis in our noisy, troubled times…”

I could not agree more.

Rafael de Acha

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