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András Schiff Almost Won Grammy Without Pedal

The Grammy without pedal that Schiff didn't win

András Schiff is one of the world’s most prominent proponents of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach and has long proclaimed that Bach stands at the core of his music-making. His 2012 recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (for the ECM New Series label) was nominated for the category “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” at the Grammy Awards 2013. He did not win the Grammy this time but had there been a category for “Best Classical Piano Solo Without Pedal”, we are pretty confident that Schiff would have won it.

After fifty years in close relationship with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, András Schiff has developed a kind of personal secret code with these works, like pet names shared between a loving older couple. Bach carefully laid out the preludes and fugues in books 1 & 2 of his WTC: 24 of each, in every possible key, major and minor. Schiff thinks of each piece as having not just a key but a particular character that he sees as color. In his recent Bach project program notes he writes:

The Grammy nominated album

The Grammy nominated album

“To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours. In my imagination, each tonality corresponds to a colour. The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy.
Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence, and therefore C major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in B minor, which is the key to death. Compare the fugue of Book 1 to the Kyrie of the B-minor mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles, we have all the other colours: first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between C minor and D minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to E minor), the greens (F major to G minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to A minor), browns (B-flat major), grey (B major) and finally black.”

Schiff’s New Approach to Bach Interpretation

As opposed to before, Schiff now entirely avoids using pedal when he plays Bach. He seeks to emulate the character of the keyboard instruments Bach himself would have known: the clavichord, harpsichord and various hybrids of his day had no means of sustaining the sound and the harpsichord could not make dynamic inflections within a phrase.

“The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice-leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy; it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.” – András Schiff, Florence, 2012.

Listen:
Samples at Amazon.com

Read Schiff’s full article on pedalling:
Senza pedale ma con tanti colori
 (Without the pedal but with plenty of colours)

Schiff´s Bach project in New York Times:
Presentation
Review


/patrick

  1. John DInwiddie Says:

    I am far from being a great pianist, but I am good enough to know that playing baroque and classical music without pedal is both a formidable challenge and an indispensable gateway to the decoding of what real, honest piano playing is. There is no doubt that playing keyboard music that was conceived for harpsichords is much harder than playing same on that instrument, since there are new and complex variables in dynamics and texture even without recourse to pedal controlled resonance. But there is a finite choreographic/gymnastic world to be discovered, and once discovered, the pedal becomes a distraction. If one takes the teaching of Abby Whiteside and Eduard Erdmann, his magnificent protege Robert Henry of the Hamburg Conservatory to heart, one will get to the payoff. This is the way to do it, and in the final analysis, it is the easiest way to do it.

  2. John DInwiddie Says:

    I should add that playing this literature on electronic sampler keyboards can be revelation, since presets can extend the decay of held notes in ways that produce results impossible to attain on conventional pianos. It is a great medium for building confidence, even if some of the sound combinations are funky. I use a Roland, will often couple a “piano” preset with a low rise (no leading attack edge) string preset. The second sound is not ideal, but in combination, one discovers that the tradeoffs are more than worth it. One has to toss purism in order to do this. These days, that’s a snap. Choose the right purism, where the dream of the piece dominates, and the medium rewards without distracting.

  3. John DInwiddie Says:

    And one final thought. There is a sobering, if brief, introduction to the Schnabel edition of Beethoven in which Schnabel proclaims the sonatas to be pedal free except where indicated. Eduard Erdmann, a little known figure whom I cited above, was at one time Schnabel’s teaching assistant. He was also a composer, and he championed Schnabel’s own piano compositions, said by those who know them–I don’t–to be largely atonal and difficult. It was Erdmann who convinced Ernst Krenek in 1948 of Schubert’s strengths in large scale compositions, particularly so the piano sonatas. Robert Henry was his student at the newly created Hamburg Conservatory as a Fulbright fellow when Erdmann died. Henry then became a professor of piano at that school where in 1963 I was briefly a student. In a matter of two or three lessons, I learned the essentials of getting the keyboard to work for the player. Those lessons were the foundation of everything that I understand today, and I was just thinking of all of this while practicing two Schubert sonatas pedal free tonight, discovering once again just how much true resonance is vested in following the details to the letter, using the held notes for the resonance and as anchor for local rotation. All of this verbiage adds up to one point. Abdication of the sustainer pedal as a resource opens doors and continues to throughout the 19th Century literature.
    I am not recommending an arid puritanism here, but I have to say that I am satisfied with what I do in inverse proportion to the amount of pedaling that I use. I don’t mean, well, fine, Kosher. I mean WHEEE!!

  4. Robert Douglass Says:

    Kimiko Ishizaka plays her Bach without pedal as well: http://www.pianostreet.com/smf/index.php?topic=53898.0

    I remember the first time in Vienna when she did this. I was watching the reviewer/journalist in the audience who I was hoping would write a good review, and she kept craning her neck to see the pedal. That’s when I realized – oh wow – Kimiko had her feet jammed under the pedal (piano was on rollers) to prevent even the temptation of bringing the foot up. The sound was amazing, and she’s done it that way ever since.

    -RD

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