A wellspring of inspiration poured forth in a Tweet posted by virtuoso cellist, Steven Isserlis whose vivid musical imagination fuses with his seamless technique. (We share common Oberlin Conservatory “roots” and an insatiable love for J.S.)
It was no accident that while unearthing a perfect gem among a collection of Bach Little Preludes, I encountered Steven’s perfectly wrapped set of thoughtful ideas about playing the composer’s music to an envisioned ideal. His words, exceeding drop-in-the-bucket, Twitter norms, were in praise of pianist, Andras Schiff while they embedded a universal paradigm for expressive Bach playing.
As Tweets come and go, often deleted by a finger slip, or as they float down like screen credits in a disappearing act of love’s labour’s lost, (Steven is a Brit), I knew to instantly grab a Screen-shot. It was my personal heist of a cyber-“plaque” of prose with a pedagogical dimension.
As mentor and performer, Isserlis enumerated the reasons why Schiff’s Bach spoke to him, revealing a shared aesthetic, and pervasive level of expression that few in the music world attain.
Isserlis breezed through his points.
“Andras Schiff’s Bach-playing is wonderfully theory-free. I feel that Bach-playing should be governed by three tests: 1) Am I playing this phrase as I would naturally sing it? 2) Could someone dance to my rhythms? 3) Am I making the harmonic journey clear without lecturing?”
The day before, the cellist had Tweet-frothed about a hangover after a late evening dose of Schiff’s Bk. 2, WTC.
“Hungover from late night Prom by Andras Schiff – Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (well-tempered even at that time of night!). The beautiful playing (and amazing memory!) of Schiff a joy; and Bach – HOW does he produce such incredible variety in 24 versions of the same form?”
Schiff’s playing bears tribute.
(Music starts at 1:05)
A pertinent tie-in video, bundled with Schiff’s ideas about recording WTC, provides more playing samples that amplify structure, harmonic content, etc. Their synthesis serves musical expression.
Finally, an animated snippet of Schiff’s mentoring embodies the spirit of his approach to Bach.
In my particular teaching studio, I support Bach-layered learning: peeling through voices, with a requirement to “sing” lines separately, and then pair and permeate them with others. This prevents top line fixation to the sacrifice of contrapuntal examination.
A layered approach with back tempo practicing, includes tracking harmonic movement and rhythm that’s woven into phrase shaping and a “singing tone.” Tapping or typing out notes mechanically as preliminaries are not an option.
Naturally, the “dancelike” character of certain Bach movements in the French, English Suites, etc, must be captured by examining meter, tempo marking, note groupings, articulations, etc.
Fugue forms demand analysis of structure, voices, their interaction, harmonic travels and rhythmic framing. All are absorbed in parcels rather than big gulps.
The incremental journey, to be satisfying, is filled with depth from the start, allowing for growth and enrichment along the way.