Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Hungarian pianist András Schiff presented the penultimate performance in his six-concert series devoted to the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This ambitious Bach project has been a joint presentation of San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS); and these last two concerts will mark the conclusion of Schiff’s tenure as Artist-in-Residence with SFS. One of the major themes of the entire project has been the study of the close relationship between Bach-the-inventive-composer and Bach-the-perceptive-pedagogue.
Indeed, it would be safe to conjecture that Bach would never have envisioned any of the concert performing situations that Schiff planned for his project. Bach-the-pedagogue would probably have been dumbstruck at the thought that a keyboard performer would make a concert evening out of either of the volumes of 24 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier (and Schiff’s first two concerts did just that for each of those two volumes, BWV 846–869 and BWV 870–893, respectively). Then, last April, Schiff moved on to material that was even more explicitly pedagogical, the second of four volumes that Bach had published under the title Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), BWV 831 and BWV 971. Last night Schiff continued his examination of Bach’s pedagogical legacy by performing the entirety of the first of these volumes, a set of six keyboard partitas (BWV 825–830). (The fourth volume, which consists only of the BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations, will be presented in the project’s final concert; and the third volume consisted entirely of music for organ.)
The six Clavier-Übung partitas were probably composed between 1725 and 1731. This was after Bach had moved to Leipzig to take up the position of Cantor at the Thomasschule of the Thomaskirche. These were different circumstances than those in which the earlier “English” and “French” suites (BWV 806–811 and BWV 812–817, respectively) were composed. Those earlier pieces may have also been pedagogical, but were probably intended for music-loving nobility, such as Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, whom Bach served as Kapellmeister before his move to Leipzig. In the more “academic” setting in Leipzig, Bach could afford to be a bit more adventurous in his pedagogy; and there is much less structural consistency across the partitas than is found in the earlier suite collections.
The partitas are not only more diverse in the movement types but also more extensive. Last night’s performance clocked in at two hours and 45 minutes, another reason for us to believe that Bach had not intended for all of them to be played, beginning to end, as a concert program. Indeed, if Bach used this material in teaching the students at the Thomasschule, he probably focused on individual movements. It is impressive how much Bach packs into any one of those movements, let alone that so much material ended up being compiled in the Clavier-Übung volume.
In spite of this harsh reality of history, it is still important to observe that Schiff took this almost overwhelming quantity of imaginative pedagogy and turned it into a thoroughly absorbing concert experience. He did not perform the partitas in the order in which they were published, but there was no logical reason for him to do so. Rather, by performing them side by side in the order he had chosen, he turned the evening into a object lesson demonstrating just how diverse Bach could be when working with material that many of his contemporaries would have regarded as “routine,” if not a bit old-fashioned. While all six of the partitas have Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande movements, each one adds a unique set of additional movements that differentiates it stylistically from the others in the collection. Thus, taken as a whole, the collection is much more of a “grand tour” of the scope of traditional forms than what one encounters in the “English” and “French” suites.
Schiff’s performance amounted to a loving examination of each of the “stops” along that tour. He played the entire evening without pedal but with meticulous phrase-by-phrase attention to his dynamics. Consistent with Bach’s approach to pedagogy, each movement was a synthesis of demands for technical dexterity unfolding through a seemingly limitless capacity for inventing new motifs and combining them in elaborate contrapuntal textures. However, complex those textures may have been, Schiff’s command of dynamics was always there to guide the attentive listener through the interrelationships of the threads.
If there were any grounds for criticizing last night, they would simply have raised the question of whether, as impressive as it was, the entire affair was too much. After all, the entire evening consisted of 41 movements, all of moderate duration and each one rather like a highly ornate carving unto itself, which can be appreciated for its virtues without considering a broader context. It’s a bit like going into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and, at some point, recognizing that taking it all in is more than a mere mortal mind can accommodate.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to appreciate just how much diversity went into those 41 movements may have made the experience of being overwhelmed worth the while. Schiff certainly seemed to appreciate the scope of what he had done. He limited his encore to the BWV 772 two-part invention in C major. This was probably the shortest encore he took among all the Bach performances he has given to date (if not all of his performances in San Francisco). Nevertheless, as far as duration was concerned, it was a very judicious decision.