“Great music is far greater than its performers,” András Schiff says in the liner notes to his recording of Bach’s Six Partitas. It is his humility and passion for the each suite that lures imagination and texture into this recording, after all, so such a quote is more than fitting.
Schiff, a Hungarian-born British classical pianist, made his first recording of Bach’s Six Partitas 25 years ago in London’s Kingsway Hall. He has studied Bach’s keyboard works for quite some time, continuing to perform them in cycles while broadening his understanding of the material.
Of the things Schiff noticed from studying Bach’s music, it was the composer’s sense for the sacred that stood out the most. Having conducted the St. Matthew Passion and the B-minor Mass for several occasions, Schiff’s experience with Bach deepened. On this particular recording, his understanding and passion for the partitas (suites) is clear.
To guess at some of Bach’s processes in composing the Six Partitas would be a task better left for a greater mind of classical music. But that’s not to say that the profound joy and beauty of these compositions is best saved for those with more refined tastes, as the true magnificence of Bach lies not in the technical details but in the overall experience of his scope, scale and sense for small moments in time and space.
Schiff’s performance of each partita allows for a broad understanding of the compositions. Presented solely with piano, the pieces initially seem to meander and trail with countless complex movements piled up on top of each other with little significance. But there is a joy to the arrangements that can be felt through Schiff’s playing, as though the small cycles hop with excitement with each brush of the keys.
“Partita No. 1 in B-flat major” is probably the best-known of the pieces. It is the most frequently performed out of Bach’s cycle, too. A gentle piece of music with seven movements, there is a lightness and a freshness to it that Schiff draws out gracefully. While Bach otherwise never used the B-flat major key for suites, it sounds wholly natural here.